The suspense that gripped UK audiences on Channel 4 has come to an end and as we regain our composure and breath, we take a look at the impact of the series with France’s new female detective
With successful Noir and drama shows such as Spiral (2005-2014), Braquo (2009- ) and The Returned (2012- ), Witnesses (2014) is the latest series to bring an original French flair to appeal to audiences of the genre.
The series aired on Channel 4 with critical acclaim from the outset. Witnesses has been praised for its striking cinematography and sombre setting of Le Tréport to rival the muted landscapes featured in Nordic Noir. Bearing similarities to the profound, slow-burning drama of Henning Mankell’s Wallander (2005-2013) and UK’s Broadchurch (2013- ), the show concentrates on the character-driven plot and atmosphere to showcase a sublime sophistication. The intertwining plot-lines lure us into a false self-confidence, playing amateur detective from the comfort of our armchairs. However, in a similar vein to its Noir predecessors from the Nordic region, the core relationships between the detectives take centre stage.
Marie Dompnier, who plays detective Sandra Winckler is teamed up with retired Chief of Police Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte) when his photo is found at the second show home crime scene. We quickly discover that the animosity emanating from Winckler stems from her past experience in the police training academy, with Maisonneuve as her mentor. Her tough exterior eventually warms to Maisonneuve as the series progresses.
Ironically, Winckler’s personal life is balanced well with the inciting incident of the murder spree. We gain an insight into the fragility of her relationship with her boyfriend and how she juggles a career with her maternal responsibilities. Marie Dompnier comments on how she considers Witnesses to be a valued addition to the Noir televisual phenomenon: “The success of these series has given a greater platform and provided a voice for French actors. They are well-written and acted which continues the popularity of these shows in the crime and drama genres.” We found out more from the rising star of French Noir.
Can you tell me about your character and what attracted you to play the role of Sandra Winckler?
Marie Dompnier: What was interesting for me is the paradox of this woman. Sandra is a character who is frightened to death by the fact that things end and people die. She’s terrified by the thought of losing the people she loves. She’s very anxious but she doesn’t show that with the people around her. She is very anxious inside. In order to counter her fear, she wants to control everything which is obviously impossible. As an actress, this part was very interesting to play because she is very fragile and anxious but seems very self-confidant in her work.
Traditionally heroines are portrayed with a clear obsession of solving the crime and are unable to balance their personal lives with their career. How do you feel Sandra fits into this profile?
MD: I think, specifically with Sandra, she is a cop before everything else. That’s why it’s very difficult to combine her job with family life. I met some cops to prepare for the show including a real policewoman. When you observe their job – which is an exceptional job – and to balance a personal life it is very difficult because it is a dangerous career. I think it’s not easy even if you are a man, actually!
Can you tell me more about the unique opening credit sequence with the ethereal music? How does this fit in with the story and how should the audience be interpreting it?
MD: I have heard that people have loved the opening credit sequence. Audiences have been asking themselves about the image of the wolf at the beginning and eventually understand the metaphor. It is not a realistic sequence and stands out from the rest of the series, directed in a realistic way. It allows the audiences to expect fantastic events to happen in the show.
Your performance seems to be very physically demanding. Did you perform any of your own stunts, receive police training, or get injured during filming?
MD: I was only trained to use the weapons. Filming was physically intense because we would shoot for four months. It was intense. I hadn’t handled a weapon before the series!
Which scenes have been your favourite to film?
MD: There were so many scenes that were interesting to shoot. At the end of the series holding Laura, played by Roxane Duran, in my arms. I loved shooting in Le Tréport due to the cliffs and the atmosphere which is the DNA of the series! It was very inspiring to be there.
What have been the most challenging experiences for you making Witnesses?
MD: I think the most difficult aspect was concentrating on the character for an intensive timeframe of four months. That was the most challenging part for me. You film a lot of scenes each day so you have to be mentally in the moment for each scene. I love that but that was a great challenge.
Do you prefer working on a television series or a feature film?
MD: I love both, really. For me the most important thing when working in a series or in a film is that the story is well-written and that the character is interesting, not so much the format.
What has it been like to work with Thierry Lhermitte?
MD: It was great because he is a real gentleman and very kind. No, really! Well, it was an amazing experience to work with him because he was certainly not behaving like a movie star! We got to collaborate together which is really great. He offered me my first ‘homard’; my first lobster. Due to Le Tréport being a fishing village by the sea. One night we went to a restaurant and it was great! We laughed a lot.
Can you share with us your inspirations for becoming an actress?
MD: My modern influences have been from Homeland (2011- ) and Clare Danes is a genius. Also with The Killing (2007-2012). It was very interesting to watch the Danish crime drama. However, one of my favourite actresses is Gena Rowlands who is really wonderful.
Can fans expect a second series of Witnesses?
MD: Yes. At the moment, season two is currently being written by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux from the first season. I think we’re going to start shooting in 2016 but we don’t have a precise date as of yet.
What kind of story arc would you like to see Sandra embarking on in the second season?
MD: Good question. It is difficult to answer! I don’t know yet but she needs to keep experiencing struggles in her personal and professional life to keep things interesting. I will be reading the script in a month so I will know more then. I cannot even imagine what she could face until I read it!
Words and interview by Antony Smith
The complete season one of Witnesses is released on DVD & Blu-Ray through Arrow Films on Monday October 5th