One of the most singularly cool moments in all of tennis took place 25 Wimbledons ago. Steffi Graf was readying to serve against Kimiko Date in the Women’s Semi-Final when a voice from the crowd shouted: “Steffi, will you marry me?” The crowd erupted into laughter. The German, then (and for me forever) the greatest tennis player of any era, grinned as she bounced the ball, silent for one immaculately timed beat. Then she served her answer, immediate and perfect: “How much money do you have?” The crowd roared.
I thought about this superlative moment several times while I watched Camille Cottin’s devastatingly cool performance as Andrea Martel in the delectable French series Call My Agent (Netflix). The smash-hit show is currently being remade in several languages, but none will feature Cottin, the beating heart of the series, a tremendous and instinctively cool performer who shares not only Graf’s hard-yet-cool edge and her unflappability in the face of the unexpected, but also — and I say this in keeping with the show’s ruthless Parisian superficiality — her nose.
Call My Agent (created by Fanny Herrero and titled Dix Pour Cent in French, for the 10% that agents skim off all profits) is a series primarily playing on celebrity insecurity, where agents mollycoddle the stars as they coax them in and out of work. Their manipulations are (mostly) born less out of malice and more out of fitting jigsaw pieces, and it is charming to see the agents work while the show satirizes the French film industry. It is an absurd, merrily unrealistic series, where the agency represents increasingly popular names as the series grows in stature, and movie stars gamely play up infantile versions of themselves.
The greatest triumph of the series is that while it features and showcases stars — stars as grand and varied as Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Lanvin, Monica Bellucci and Charlotte Gainsbourg — who are clearly having an infectiously good time sending themselves up, they aren’t the stars of the show. Instead we are invested in — and rooting for — the agents, flawed, fumbling and intricately fleshed out characters like Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert), Gabriel Sarda (Grégory Montel) and Hervé (Nicolas Maury).
This is where Andrea Martel shines brightest.
Andrea — who is somehow, simultaneously the calmest and the most frenzied of agents — treats her clients with the weariness of an experienced babysitter. At work, it is remarkable to watch her toy with her celebrity offspring, but doubly so to see the empathy Cottin’s character builds with her clients. Never supplicating, never out of her depth, Andrea is perpetually able to reach and stay on their level. It is stunning to watch her lie back in the bed of a hotel room and build relatability with an actor who wants to have an affair, as well as one who is moments away from biting a dog.
Here is a wonderfully realised character both cynical and achingly romantic, both eager to love and eager to arch her eyebrow at love. She is the French New Wave. She is detached coolth. She is Le Samourai. Andrea has a gluttonous zeal for life — wanting a child, wanting a relationship — but is frequently drowned out by the demands these desires make on her life. Cottin plays her as a walking contradiction, juggling as if by second nature when it comes to work but frequently dropping the balls when it comes to life outside the office. For so many of us increasingly (and ill-advisedly) defining ourselves by the work we do, Andrea is an icon.
Cottin was unsurprisingly born in Paris, but grew up in London and taught high-school English back in Paris before looking striking in a 2009 advertisement for Japanese phone Softbank — a Jacques Tati inspired one-shot commercial which bears the signature of director Wes Anderson too distinctively — with Brad Pitt. Candid-camera series Connasse showed off her spontaneity and comedic timing (the “How much money do you have?” impulse was clearly baked in early) and then we saw her in Killing Eve season three and this year’s Matt Damon starrer Stillwater. Before the massively anticipated fifth season (and feature film) of Call My Agent, we will see her in Ridley Scott’s upcoming multistarrer House Of Gucci.
While Call My Agent is being adapted into several languages — I’m told the Turkish version is already a hit — I don’t know why the British are bothering with their own version after having Ricky Gervais’s Extras (which took celebrity cameos to a whole other level of self-awareness) and Absolute Power, a 20-year-old comedy about PR-skullduggery starring Stephen Fry that visibly influenced the creators of Call My Agent. An Indian version called Call My Agent Bollywood premiered on Netflix last week, but I don’t dare attempt these cover versions. The sheer Andrea-lessness feels like a dealbreaker.
Not that Cottin is opposed to remakes herself. A couple of years ago, she starred in a French remake of Fleabag.
The first time I read that, I gasped. Cottin as “Fleabag”? It sounds too good to be true, and the mind, rightly, boggles. And while I haven’t been able to source much of the French series — titled Mouche — beyond a few unsubtitled clips, Cottin, being a far more talented actress, appears to inhabit that character we love (and those lines we’ve memorised) even better than its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Few actors have the gift of making other people’s lines feel like their own. To deliver them with scorn and contempt and savagery unique to themselves. To make a scripted line feel like a retort to a heckle, temptingly lobbed in the air, begging to be smashed with a comeback. Camille Cottin truly is something special. Many can deliver an ace. Cottin delivers a grand slam.