According to a chap writing for The Guardian the other day, "Scandi noir" is dead. That is, the genre that included The Bridge and The Killing, and inspired Broadchurch, The Missing and River, has deflated and is now just another style of TV that seems derivative of itself.
Judgment will have to be delayed on that. But it's certainly not true that Europe in general has ceased to make interesting thrillers that rely on the style and methodology made so remarkably appealing in Scandinavian crime dramas.
Hotel Beau Séjour (newly streaming on Netflix here) is a remarkably textured, slow-burning and compelling murder mystery from Belgium. (It's in Dutch with English subtitles.) There is nothing ordinary about it but in the way that Scandinavian dramas have used the ordinary and the mundane to add substance to crime drama – this one is set emphatically in the midst of ordinary people living ordinary lives.
What happens to initiate the story is not ordinary, if course. There's a brutal, bloody murder scene. The victim is a teenage girl named Kato (played by Lynn Van Royen, who is fantastic). The key twist is that Kato wakes up in a hotel that has yet to be opened to the public and sees her own dead body. It's in a bathtub, covered in blood.
It takes a short while but Kato realizes that she is in fact, a ghost.
Kato is a very typical teenager living a humdrum life. She wanders away from the appalling scene of her own murder and tries to figure out what has happened. Soon, it dawns on her that only five people can actually see her and, eventually, she comes to realize that they can see her because they are, in some way, connected to her murder.
There's nothing of the supernatural about all of this. Kato is a simply a panicky, bewildered teenager trying to figure out what terrible events led to her own murder. She got drunk, she went off with a boy, she thinks, but how did it all lead to murder?
As the mystery unfolds, we get inside day-to-day life in Belgium. The crowded bars, the shops and the working people are seen going about their business. Hardly anyone can see Kato, so she observes all of this with an outsider's keen eye. Suddenly, everything that was humdrum now seems deeply sinister. This is a variation on the storytelling process established in the Scandinavian dramas – a society and culture are explored from within, but from the perspective of the skeptical and the shocked. It is eerily effective here – the camera lingers long in the ordinary kitchens and bedrooms of family homes, asking the viewer to contemplate the horror that is there, just under the surface.
There is also a subtle social-analysis element to what transpires. A teenage girl is obliged to look at the apparent tranquillity of her community and see what traps are laid for young women and how sexual violence simply exists, everywhere. It's just that she failed to realize, when alive, where dangers lurk.
In many ways, Hotel Beau Séjour is not just an imaginative product and offshoot of what the possibly brief, golden period of Scandinavian drama unleashed. It also exhibits the influence of the first season of HBO's True Detective. (CBC's Bellevue also shows the heavy influence of that series.) There is a world-weariness in its approach and strong sense of visual menace in the workaday reality. Everyone carries burdens, it seems, and sometimes those burdens can only be cast off in blinding rage, especially rage aimed at the young.
This is not a crime drama for anyone who is impatient with slow-moving storylines. At times it is emotionally circumspect and at times it is very direct. The scene in which Kato realizes that her own mother cannot see or hear her is very powerful. Adding to the power is the child's realization of how much her mother loves her and what pain her disappearance has caused.
Perhaps it's true that dramas from Denmark, Sweden and Norway are in decline now. But astonishingly good drama is being made in Europe. Hotel Beau Séjour is one – an ambitious, affecting mystery and definitely worth watching.