Society

Black Screen: Experimental French TV Show Is All About Audio

An experimental television show on France's Canal+ relies more on sounds than images to scare the daylights out of people

CALLS voice actress Charlotte Le Bon
Virginie Nussbaum

PARIS — Some French television viewers were likely surprised last month when they switched on one evening to see ... a black screen. At least at the outset. Then, short subtitles begin to appear along with some vague, undulating and colorful forms. Finally, the sound of voices, which turn out to be those of four divers exploring the depths of the Atlantic, in 2026.

A lucky tip has allowed the divers — Gabrielle, Théo, Sun and Isaïe — to find a mysterious cave that contains a strange creature. That's when things start to go wrong ... For 10 minutes, the viewer listens, following the divers' exchanges, which are interrupted by bubbles from their breathing. The background music is simple but engaging, and generates just the right level of suspense as the neoprene-clad protagonists try to escape the beast. "What was that?" A long, watery wail ensues ... "A scream ..."

Hear it all happen, instead of watching. That is the big idea in CALLS, a new series on Canal+. The series premiered on Dec. 15 and consists of 10 episodes to be shown late on Friday evenings on the cable network's scrambled channel.

Better a suggestive sound than a picture that "tells' you what to think.

The choppy sounds in each episode are supposed to be recovered "evidence" of some awful event, one that is now being pieced together as the viewer — or listener really — follows along. Examples include a woman's anxious phone call to the police as someone is trying to break into her home; the black box of a plane that crashed inexplicably into the ocean; even the sound recordings of a film whose crew have all disappeared.

CALLS is 10 "accidental" story chunks that mix elements of the thriller, horror film and science fiction. All, to a greater or lesser degree, conjure Biblical or mythical visions of absolute, Apocalyptic mayhem.

The creator of this surprising series is Timothée Hochet, a young director of online shorts. Hochet was just 23 when, in October 2016, he uploaded his first video to YouTube. The short consisted of youngsters calling one another as they observe, it seems, something paranormal. The impression it left was certainly strange and troubling.

The video soon clocked up 400,000 views and caught the attention of a producer from Studio Bagel, who thought of turning the idea into a series for Canal+. Soon, prominent French actors such as Gaspard Ulliel, Mathieu Kassovitz, Charlotte Le Bon and Kyan Khojandi were lending their voices to the project.

Less is more

The show was born of Hochet's desire to create a truly chilling experience, much like the 911 calls he had heard made to emergency services in the United States. Those sound clips, he explains, made him feel "emotions no film had provoked: fear of the unknown, silence, breathing." Hochet loves horror films but says it's a pity they rely so much on special effects. "The disappointment comes the moment you see the monster," he explains. "For me, the most effective films are those that show less. I like it when a work leaves a big part to the imagination."

In short, better a sparse canvas than a picture with too many details; or in this case, better a suggestive sound than a picture that "tells' you what to think.

François Musy, one of Switzerland's top sound engineers who has worked with famed directors like Xavier Giannoli and Jean-Luc Godard, agrees. Younger generations, he says, are "stuffed with images, all the time." The problem with pictures, Musy explains, is that they leave nothing to the "subjective" mind. "Sound, on the other hand, can deceive," he adds. "And nobody feels it in the same way. One might even perceive it differently depending on the time of the day."

Fear of the unknown, silence, breathing.

While CALLS episodes are typically just 10 minutes long, they are carefully crafted to win and keep the attention of their television listeners. As Musy explains, "Sound must be directed like a crime film and as precisely as any musical partition." In the film Dunkirk, he adds, "Christopher Nolan does not need to show bloody scenes, because he knows how to perfectly dose the moments of silence, and absence."

Back on CALLS: This time we're in a plane cabin during flight; beeping sounds start to mix with scream amid a strangely familiar chaos. Gripping? All you need is your headset and unfettered imagination to find out. I'd say it's certainly worth a try.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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