For most artists, the idea that their work is only complete once there’s an audience to interact with it is axiomatic.
In the world of literature, you’ve got novelists like Ruth Ozeki singing about how fiction is forever a joint effort between writer and reader: “When our minds connect, our hearts open, and our tones start to resonate with the words on the page, the result is a collaboration, a cocreation, a book we cannot put down.” In the world of visual art, you’ve got on the one hand 20th-century theorists like Walter Benjamin penning treatises on the idea of aura—that is, the almost supernatural sense of authenticity a work of art can take on when regarded by an audience—and on the other, working contemporary artists like watercolorist Kristi Grussendorf saying point-blank that “success is when [a] painting has its own relationship and conversation with the viewer.”
And in the world of entertainment? Well, you’ve got celebrity. Which, if fiction is a story a reader and a writer make up together, and art is the locus of a quasi-supernatural aura that only the act of viewing can access, then celebrity—that is, the reality of a person being not just incredibly famous, but having established such a spectacle of a public image that it’s as closely read and analyzed as any great work of art—is all that and more.
This, at least, is the premise that creator Dominique Besnehard and showrunner Fanny Herrero were working from when they developed the award-winning French comedy series Call My Agent! (in France, Dix Percent), which takes as its subject not just the humorous inner workings of a boutique Parisian talent agency, but the equally risible private vanities and anxieties of the very real French celebrities its fictive agents work with.
Starring Camille Cottin, Thibault de Montalembert, Grégory Montel, Liliane Rovère, and Fanny Sidney as the fictional ASK agency’s core team, Call My Agent!—whose entire run is streaming for American audiences on Netflix—asks the question, what if France’s brightest artistic lights could read their celebrity as the text it is and play with it in a wholly fun and novel way? That is, what if French celebrities could develop a (public) sense of humor about their own image?
To an American audience, this question might sound absurd. There is, after all, nothing American celebrity loves more than gazing lovingly back at its own reflection: Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts in Ocean’s 12. James Van Der Beek playing James Van Der Beek in Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23. Keanu Reeves playing Keanu Reeves in Always Be My Maybe. Nic Cage playing Nic Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Everyone playing themselves in Episodes. Everyone playing themselves in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone playing themselves in The Real Husbands of Hollywood. Everyone playing themselves, even, in Sesame Street. At this point, the credit line “as self” is practically a rite of passage when it comes to American celebrity.
But as Call My Agent!‘s favorite boss bitch agent Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin) notes in a 2021 interview with The Irish Timesthe same has not been historically true of French celebrity. “It’s not at all a French tradition,” Cottin tells the paper, contextualizing the difficulty the French series had in recruiting big French names to guest star in the show’s first season. “We tend to think of ourselves as artists, and self-mockery or self-parody is not something that sits naturally with us.”
And yet, Call My Agent! was ultimately able to book the the best of the best of French celebrities. In the series’ first short season alone, Herrero and her team managed to pull in Cécile de France, Line Renaud, Françoise Fabian, and JoeyStarr. By the end of its fourth (and final) season, that list of famous artists had grown to include Juliette Binoche, Guy Marchand, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Dujardin, Jean Reno, Nathalie Baye, NBA star Tony Parker, and—though this may hardly be surprising, given American celebrity’s devotion to self-satire outlined above—Hollywood legend Sigourney Weaver, who had fallen so deeply in love with the series’ earliest seasons that she signed up for the project without reading a single page of Hererro’s proposed script.
The British take on sending up its stars’ celebrity is rooted instead in a kind of everyman fallibility.
What ultimately won these self-serious French artists over to Call My Agent!’s cause? According to Cottin, it was the irony and tenderness with which Herrero’s team treated both the history and artists behind French cinema. But it doesn’t take a film scholar to understand that beyond taking seriously the art to which big names like Renaud, Binoche, and Dujardin have attached their personal and professional reputations, the fact that Call My Agent! isn’t afraid to treat its stars’ celebrity like the texts they are is doing some real heavy lifting, inviting as it does both actor and audience into the kind of aurastic collaboration that makes all narrative art feel alive.
Delightfully, Call My Agent!’s understanding of celebrity-as-text proved such a success that it’s been reconceptualized for several markets; indeed, it’s set to officially overtake SHAME for most international adaptations (a planned nine to SHAME’s seven). The most recent market to get the Dix Percent bump? Well, as of its global debut this past weekend, that would be the UK, where W1A’s John Morton has taken the French model and, using his signature rat-a-tat style, turned it into something wholly (read: awkwardly) British.
Echoing the French version’s original title, Ten Percent (a reference to the cut traditionally taken by agents from their clients’ paychecks) stars Jack Davenport, Lydia Leonard, Maggie Steed, Prasanna Puwanarajah, and Hiftu Quasem as the main players behind the half-flailing Nightingale Hart agency, and follows, in its first season, many of the same storylines as its Gallic forebear. And where ASK was representing luminaries like Gérard Lanvin and Charlotte Gainsbourg,, Nightingale Hart has on its rolls the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, David Oyelowo, Kelly Macdonald, Hamish Patel, Olivia Williams, Emma Corrin, and Dominic West.
Compellingly, while the French may have, as Cottin avers, been historically loath to do something so gauche as parody their own celebrity by playing fictionalized versions of themselves for laughs, the British long ago mastered the art. What is Red Nose Day, after all, if not a 34-year-old send-up of a whole country’s comedic celebrity?
But where the Brits are experts of the form, their devotion to self-satire isn’t premised on the same navel-gazing (if entertaining) narcissism as Hollywood’s. Rather, in being as distinct and literally distant from Hollywood’s glossy myth of perfection as it is, the British take on sending up its stars’ celebrity is rooted instead in a kind of everyman fallibility. This is a self-read that Morton’s Ten Percentin its first season, leans into at every turn, but it’s perhaps most brazen in Episode 3, in which Dominic West (as Dominic West) finds himself cast in a production of Hamlet that has the titular character so obsessed with his own image that he’s constantly documenting it, in real time, with his smartphone, the images he takes throughout his monologues blasting up to a triptych of cinema-sized screens behind him the moment they hit the cloud.
Both Call My Agent! and Ten Percent make their audiences aware of their complicity in the mythmaking of celebrity itself.
The West of Ten Percent’s vision absolutely detests this, his own incessant image distracting him to the point of panic (a problem which, naturally, only his longtime agent can solve). As for how the real-world West might feel about such a project? Well, that’s the question of the hour. As celebrity scholar Anne Helen Petersen notes in writing about seismic shifts in power that have changed the very idea of celebrity over the last few decades in the (mostly American) cultural landscape, how the text of a star’s celebrity is mediated matters. When said mediation happens in glossy magazine coverage, the text is curated to the point of dullness; when it’s mediated by a star’s own social media, it’s buffed to a mythic sheen.
“Contemporary celebrity is boring because celebrities—and, more importantly, the platforms and franchises that control them—are too powerful,” Petersen writes in a recent piece about a “lancing” New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong that, in rising just barely above anodyne, managed to rile up the image-protecting furor of what felt like half of Hollywood. “I wish some celebrities understood that more: that exercising complete control over one’s image also means erasing all the frisson and interest, the very heart of their charisma and charm.”
What happens, then, when celebrity is mediated by the writers’ room of a project like Call My Agent! or Ten Percent? As the above list of self-satirizing American projects so neatly underscores, that’s something else entirely. Or at least, it could be: by handing the text of their celebrity over to a bunch of comedy writers, West and all the other guest stars of Ten Percent are—like Hollywood’s gratifyingly un-self-serious stars Van Der Beek, Roberts, and Cage before them—handing over just enough control that they invite back in the very frisson whose absence Petersen laments.
Which is to say, what we see when we see West rage, rage against the dying of Hamlet’s smartphone camera light may not, in fact, be representative in the slightest of the real West’s artistic temperament and personal demons. At the same time, though, the winking realism of Ten Percent’s premise invites its audience to believe that it could be.
Therein lies the power of the “fake talent agency/real celebrity” premise: by making their audiences have to consider how these vulnerably goofy presentations of French and British stars contribute to the texts of their real-life celebrity, both Call My Agent! and Ten Percent make their audiences, at the same time, aware of their complicity in the mythmaking of celebrity itself.
And as far as viewing experiences go, that’s just good fun.
New episodes of Ten Percent drop Fridays on Sundance Now and AMC+, and air the following day on AMC. All four seasons of Call My Agent! are streaming now on Netflix.