Eric Rochant's TV series Le Bureau des légendes, known in English as The Bureau, is everything Homeland isn't: an understated, subtle and nuanced espionage drama. In the first season there are no explosions, the body count is negligible, and there's hardly any talk of patriotism. The hero, undercover agent Guillaume Debailly (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), has risen to the top of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, by adhering to a rigorous, almost ascetic set of principles, but these principles are more artisanal than patriotic, and he eventually finds himself forced to abandon them. The focus is on the work, and most of that work takes place in the cramped offices, and in front of the computer screens, of the DGSE.
When the show opens, Debailly has just returned from six years of undercover work in Syria, where he taught French under the name Paul Lefebvre. In Paris he is given a hero's welcome, and a lovely crash pad, but he's also under surveillance by his colleagues: readjustment to normal life is never easy for those who’ve lived double lives, and the agency has to be mindful. Its suspicions are not awakened, but only because Debailly knows how to cover his tracks. He has a secret, and her name is Nadia El Mansour, a beautiful historian he fell for in Damascus (played by Zineb Tikri). She, too, is in Paris, and she also has a secret: not that she's a spy, as Debailly begins to fear, but that she's come to advise a cousin of Bashar al-Assad and the Russians in secret talks with the opposition. She is no threat to Debailly, but he is very much a threat to her if the Syrians find out who he is, and when they do, they kidnap her to blackmail Debailly. To rescue her, Debailly begins to play a dangerous double game of his own.
Kassovitz is a brilliant physical actor: in almost every gesture, we can see him trying to impose order on his increasingly chaotic world; his square jaw barely conceals the tension under which he operates. He has magnetic, watchful eyes, always alert to possible threats. Small and lean but confident of his power, he moves with quiet, relentless force. He's often filmed just as he arrives in his flat, or just as he's about to leave: these rituals of arrival and departure recall similar scenes from Jean-Pierre Melville's noirs, particularly Alain Delon's performance as a hit man in Le Samouraï. There may also be a gnomic allusion to Melville's Resistance drama The Army of Shadows. In Melville's film, Madame Mathilde, Simone Signoret's character, is caught by the Gestapo with a photograph of her daughter, which puts the girl in harm’s way; Debailly's Syrian adversaries find him by way of his daughter's ID card, which he keeps in his jacket.
The series is rich in subplots, and they bear the mark of careful research. Nadia, a former supporter of the Syrian uprising, still detests the regime but has agreed to advise it to prevent the country's complete collapse. The men she works for are cynical and sometimes brutal, and you can tell she loathes them, but their ugliness is of this world, not a nightmare of pure evil.
Meanwhile, in Algiers, one of the DGSE's agents, codename Cyclone, has disappeared after being arrested for drunk driving – a curious thing since he claimed to be a practising Muslim who never touched alcohol. Cyclone (played by Mehdi Nebbou), who may or may not be working for Algeria's intelligence services, is eventually delivered into the hands of the Islamic State in the Sahel, where the Algerians have a mole: another twist that might have been lifted from the long history of conflict between the DGSE and Algeria's Military Security. The scenes in Algiers are filmed without sensationalism – or, for that matter, the muzak of muezzins and Allahu Akbars that accompany most American, British and Israeli series whenever the camera shifts from the Western metropole to the so-called Muslim world. There may be a sly nod to The Battle of Algiers: one of the undercover operatives is a woman cloaked in a haik, like one of Pontecorvo's female guerillas. But otherwise Algiers, like Paris, is notable for its banality.
One of the striking aspects of The Bureau – an expression of its sober and unflinching realism – is the emphasis it places on the damage that intelligence work inflicts on vulnerable people. Intelligence officers are sometimes required to put their contacts in danger, the better to reach their ‘targets’, and they do so with little compunction, unless – like Debailly – they've succumbed to the attachments they've been trained to resist. A young agent called Marina Loiseau is trying to land a job in Tehran with her Iranian boss at the Seismography Institute in Paris. Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau) has been warned not to sleep with him: if she does, he won't take her to Iran, since he has a family there. When she rejects his advances, saying he looks too much like her father, he apologises sincerely. He also reveals that the woman he introduced her to as his wife (a woman who flooded her with intrusive questions at a party) isn't really his wife: she's an Iranian official who’s come to Paris specifically in order to vet Loiseau – who, being a spy herself, already knows this. If anyone is an innocent in this relationship, it’s the Iranian nuclear scientist – something almost unimaginable in an American series.
Kassovitz is the lead of The Bureau, but the true star of the show is the bureau itself, the complicated ballet of office work inside an intelligence agency. In a consistently brilliant cast, two performances stand out: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, as Debailly's permanently discouraged boss, a bureaucrat who feels guilty that he never worked in the field but is anything but a pushover; and Léa Drucker, who plays a behavioural psychologist recently recruited to help agents manipulate their targets, a job for which she turns out to be supremely well-equipped in unexpected ways.
The Bureau shows these men and women at work, sometimes in conflict but, when it matters, in unison. Seeing this collective in action is one of the show's great pleasures. In one of the more memorable scenes – perhaps a little too self-consciously choreographed – Debailly explains the Cyclone dossier to a few of his colleagues, and over the next few minutes, the rest of the staff files in, one person at a time. They're watching a rising star of the agency, little aware that he's offered his services to a rival: the CIA. Fortunately, this isn't Homeland.