Imagine spending years painstakingly building and calibrating a superlative car. Then you gift the keys to someone else and tell them they are free to drive off into the sunset — or crash the car into a wall.
For Éric Rochant, that fancy roadster was the stylish, critically acclaimed French espionage series “The Bureau,” which he created and oversaw. Until the very end of his run.
“When I was sure Season 5 would be my last, I decided to close it with someone else,” he explained in a recent Zoom conversation. (He’ll stay on as a producer.) For the season’s final two episodes, he gave carte blanche to the award-winning film director Jacques Audiard, a virtual newcomer to television. That included power over life-and-death decisions about the characters.
In a Zoom interview, Audiard gleefully ran with the automotive analogy. “There was a British guy named Tyrrell who built incredible Formula 1 cars,” he said. “He said you had to tune up a good one in such a way that it would win the race and collapse right afterward.”
He laughed. “And that’s what I did,” he added.
As exit strategies go, Rochant’s took some chutzpah given the success of his creation. “The Bureau,” known in France as “Le Bureau des Légendes,” has been a commercial and critical hit since it debuted in 2015, airing currently in 112 markets. An American remake is in development at Paramount, said Rochant’s producing partner, Alex Berger, and there is talk of British, German and South Korean versions. In December, The Times’s Mike Hale ranked it third in his list of the best international TV shows of the decade.
When the Season 5 arrives on Sundance Now on Thursday, Americans will have the chance to weigh the success of Rochant’s gamble, which divided viewers in France last month like few TV events in recent memory — a kind of French equivalent to the “Seinfeld” or “Sopranos” finales. Some hated Audiard’s ending. Others called it a two-part masterpiece. For Audiard, known for the Oscar-nominated “A Prophet” and the Palme d’Or-winning “Dheepan,” it was a chance to try something new.
“I was interested in working with characters I didn’t create, on stories I wasn’t familiar with,” he said. “For me it was about leaving behind the ‘auteur filmmaker’ milieu with which I’m associated in France and Europe. I found that invigorating.”
For its many fans worldwide, “The Bureau” has been something of an obsession. Compared favorably by critics to the best seasons of “Homeland,” it follows intelligence agents as they hopscotch around the globe from one dangerous mission to the next — in “The Bureau,” the agents live and work under elaborate false identities called “legends,” per its original title. Le Figaro has called it the best series ever made in France.
But even with all the success, Rochant was ready to move on, leaving “The Bureau” to continue without him. (Berger said a sixth season, which he described as being more like a sequel, is in the works.)
“He had been tired since Season 2,” said Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays the lead character, Guillaume Debailly, code-named Malotru. “I hope — and by saying this, I’m trying to send him a message — he’ll take a sabbatical year and …” His voice trailed off.
Weariness aside, Rochant felt that he had reached a mythical television target.
“For me, a real series is five seasons,” he said. “I could have stopped at four, but ‘The Wire’ is five seasons. ‘Friday Night Lights’ is five. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is five.”
Rochant and Berger took a more typically American approach to creating “The Bureau” — they developed it as a streamlined production centered on a showrunner, a structure that was still rare in France at the time. They even visited the New York set of the FX legal drama “Damages” to watch how it worked.
But by Season 4, Rochant seemed ready to test the idea of passing the baton. When his film-school classmate Pascale Ferran (“Bird People,” “Lady Chatterley”) offered her services, he hired her to direct two episodes and help manage the production and its directors. In choosing Audiard to close Season 5, Rochant picked a director with a proven record for putting a thoughtful, melancholy spin on the thriller genre.
“I wanted to finish in a non-sentimental manner and not make it about me or my relationship to the series,” Rochant said. “So the best was to entrust the end to someone who’d be detached from it and would want to explore new sides of the story or the characters, someone with a powerful poetry” like Audiard.
From the start, one of the show’s most dominant features has been its impeccable sense of restraint. Though there’s no shortage of high-octane action, the plot’s engines are patience, negotiation and seduction — Rochant wanted the series to hew as close as possible to the way the General Directorate for External Security (the French equivalent of the C.I.A.) operates.
“Eric’s obsession was plausibility,” Berger said. “The show might not be real, but it’s plausible.”
Rochant drew a sharper distinction. “It’s the big difference with ‘Homeland,’” he said. “They opted for the strongest dramaturgy at the expense, maybe, of realism.”
For the actors, that often meant trying not to noticeably act. The characters’ hushed tones and calm demeanors stand in stark contrast to the Big Acting that creeps into many thrillers, even ones as relatively low-key as “The Americans.”
“Éric’s mantra on set is ‘Do as you would in real life,’” said Florence Loiret-Caille, who plays Marie-Jeanne, a Malotru handler who then climbs the ranks. “I’d say, ‘But boss, I’ve never run a crisis room! I don’t understand a word I say!’”
Kassovitz, who has helped directed several episodes and is perhaps best known to American audiences as a filmmaker (“La Haine,” “Babylon A.D.”), elaborated.
“I would ask Éric, ‘What kind of emotion do you want?’” he said. “‘Poker face? OK, cool. There’s nothing easier than a poker face.’”
He added: “Viewers tell me, ‘Wow, what an intensity.’ And I say, ‘No, the intensity is coming from you, from the way it’s been edited, what we show you, the story that’s being told. You are the one placing this tension in my eyes. Me, I was just gazing into the distance.’”
Whatever its source, that intensity drives the series. As in any good spy show, desire is a force with global repercussions: The entire plot is set in motion when Kassovitz’s character betrays his country for a woman (Zineb Triki) he met undercover in Syria. Suspense simmers just as much in conference rooms as in the field.
“That’s the legacy of John le Carré: Office scenes that are exciting because power is at stake,” Rochant said. “It’s also drawing from the realism of American filmmaking in the 1970s.”
Those ’70s films are a key to understanding the approach of Rochant, 59, who came of cinephilic age during that decade.
“My desire to make movies is linked to American cinema with a strong storytelling tradition,” he explained. “In the ’70s it also is politicized, engaged, and it has roots in investigative journalism — there is a connection to reality.”
Across five seasons, Rochant made a habit of confounding expectations. Just when you expected a mission to go horribly wrong, it ended well — or vice versa. Beloved characters were abruptly killed off. Double-crosses abounded. But the surprises lay not only in the plot twists: For all of the show’s wildly entertaining and addictive qualities, its offbeat pace and often spooky atmosphere set it apart from other series in the genre.
That left a stylistic opening to Audiard, and he went for it. His two episodes, written with his longtime collaborator Thomas Bidegain, split opinions in France. Many viewers took to social media to complain about the often dreamlike tone, or that certain characters had been neglected; others embraced Audiard’s audacity.
Loiret-Caille compared Audiard’s ending to a Greek tragedy, calling it “rather beautiful.” On Twitter, Rochant called it “a bold artistic move that disrupts the narrative logic,” adding: “Time is on our side.”
Audiard, who will not return next season, seemed to take a near-spiritual view: “I saw it as a requiem,” he said.
Which felt appropriate. As Audiard discussed “The Bureau,” his speech wandered from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze to the heady new wave talkathon “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), by Eric Rohmer. For Audiard, Rochant’s series was grounded in a broader French tradition of artistic and intellectual discourse — and risk-taking.
“I didn’t know Éric very much,” he said of Rochant, “but he makes decisions that, in hindsight, show a lot of nerve.” Apparently that included handing the reins to the kind of director who quotes Deleuze. Audiard chuckled.
“I wouldn’t have done it in his shoes,” he said.