[This story contains spoilers for the Netflix movie Under Paris.]

Slicing Paris in half, the river Seine flows through the heart of French identity, past the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Académie Française, the centuries-old institution of letters that guards against the bastardization of the French language, leading a valiant resistance to American cultural expansion. In these sacrosanct waters and adjoining catacombs, Under Paris director and co-writer Xavier Gens has let loose a monster shark, a mutated, self-replicating, mostly CGI descendant of Jaws, that ultimate symbol of the statesidesummer blockbuster. Quelle horreur! But to hear the Gallic helmer tell it, the Netflix film is far from a capitulation to Hollywood but in fact a sly act of cinematic subversion.

A veteran of U.S. films like 2007’s Hitman, Gens appropriated genre conventions only to undercut them with a twist of French nihilism. As the predator turns a swimming event into an all-you-can-eat buffet (as if athletes scheduled to race in the Seine at this summer’s Olympics didn’t have enough to worry about), the City of Light floods, and countless dorsal fins circle our stranded heroes in a haunting, hopeless final image. (One assumes the beasts devour them, then floss with the velvet ropes around the Mona Lisa.) 

The preposterous premise does not seem to have turned off audiences. Under Paris has been the number one film on Netflix charts for two weeks straight, racking up more than 70 million views since its June 5 debut. Gens says the movie has become the most watched French film of all time — not just on the streamer — surpassing 1966’s World War II romp La Grande Vadrouille. (THR was not able to independently verify that last claim, nor is it clear how such a statistic can be measured.) 

In a recent conversation, Gens explained that the film had to function on multiple levels — as a cultural satire, an environmental call-to-arms, a proof of French technical proficiency, and as gory fun for the whole family — and that some of the movie’s most credulity-straining details hew surprisingly close to reality.

Jaws in the Seine. Was this some kind of provocation?

It was more of a tribute because, actually, I’m 49 and I was born the year Jaws came out. So always said to myself when I was a kid, the day I get to make a film, I want to do a tribute to that film in time for that film’s [50th] anniversary. And so it was. It was a bit of an intention. And then, above all, there was the idea of saying, well, we’re also making a metaphor for showbusiness, and in the end it’s the symbol of the first blockbuster destroying the ultimate blockbuster, the Olympic Games.

How long ago did you come up with the idea of putting a shark in the riverHad it already been announced that the swimming events at the Olympics would take place in the Seine?

Actually, it was originally the idea of [producers] Sébastien Auscher and Edouard Duprey, who asked me if I was interested in developing this film. And I told them that, yes, it would be interesting to turn it into a kind of metaphor for entertainment, but also a kind of environmental satire on current climate issues. And so I thought it would be great to be able to mix the two, a bit like Adam McKay did with Don’t Look Up, but keeping the notion of a great spectacle for the whole family.

Not sure about the whole family… I’m afraid to show it to my children. They’re six and eight, so it’s maybe a bit early.

It’s a bit early, but in two years’ time, they’ll be totally into it.

How can you pull off both satire and credible scares? 

It’s my job as a director to be able to move from one emotion to another, to be able to tell a story, to have an engaging subtext, as we see at the beginning with the plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And beyond that, to make you think a little of the vitriol of our current policies. It’s really a balancing act. We tried hard to find solutions so that everything is as fluid as possible and at the same time as spectacular as possible.

Under Paris

Xavier Gens and Nassim Lyes on the set of Under Paris

Sofie Gheysens/Netflix

What are some of the decisions you made to pull that off?

I wanted to be able to film all the shark scenes like documentaries. I wanted the first ten minutes of the film to be very intense, very immersive. And I wanted the tension and action scenes to be at the level of an American film, so that there’s that blockbuster texture and you don’t feel the lack of means because it’s a French film. French films are often criticized for lacking technical flair. And here, I wanted to put my experience with people like Gareth Evans, with whom I did Gangs of London, to good use, so that afterwards I could remove the material and still have our own tone, our own freedom. In France, we can afford to be a little more nihilistic in tone and in visual freedom than Hollywood films. And I think that’s what makes the film fresh. We thought, well, the important characters in the film can be killed off after half an hour. Like witht the young activist in the film, we decided we’d have to kill her off in the middle of the film, so that the last act of the film would be something anti-Hollywood. So we ended up using Hollywood-style spectacular to make a nihilistic ending. Where a Hollywood film would have killed the shark, here we’ve allowed it to live.

So you’ve used Hollywood’s own cinematic language against it.

Exactly. That’s really it. That’s what gives the film a double meaning. It’s provocative both because of its satirical nature, and because all the characters who are supposed to be heroic figures are caught off-guard because they only make bad decisions. And in the end, humans, no matter what, in everything we show in the film, whether it’s the mayor of Paris or our heroes, are always suffering the consequences of those decisions, which lead to climate disaster in the end. Even if they’re heroic figures, they’re heroes who make mistakes, and that makes them more human.

Did you base your movie on the structure of Jaws in particular? Because in both there’s a mayor who refuses to acknowledge the problem.

It’s more or less the same thing, except that for us, the issue is that instead of the beaches of Amity Island on Fourth of July, it’s the Olympics. We made a kind of metaphor out of the Olympic Games, but with this financial aspect. In other words, the Olympic Games, whatever happens today, even if we have problems organizing them in France, we’ll never cancel such an event because the sums invested are far too colossal. In fact, we wanted to show that the stakes are financial. Whereas in Jaws, the focus was on the danger posed by the shark. Here, in fact, we wanted to highlight the perils of human greed. And I think it’s important to talk about human greed, because that’s what makes the Great Pacific garbage patch what it is today. That’s why we don’t preserve species. It’s all about making money. And I think money, in the film, is at the heart of the problem. 

The film takes a pretty militant stance, but at the same time, there’s a sharp satire of idealistic, naïve Greenpeace-type activists. So tell me a little about that double-edged critique.

Precisely. I’m an activist myself. I support all of Sea Shepherd’s actions and that’s precisely why we created the character of Ben, who is Mika’s best friend, who is more measured. But there are also some very radical activists, and we wanted to show that both a moderate activist, who will try to warn her friend of the danger of her actions, and Mika, who will take things to the extreme. In the end, [Ben]is the only one that doesn’t get eaten by the shark. She drowns — we were trying to do justice to her, because she reflects my own activism.

Are you a diver yourself? 


What drives this passion for the environment in you? 

I’m fighting hard to prevent ocean pollution. When I made my film Cold Skin, we did a campaign to collect plastic on the island of Lanzarote to try to clean up its beaches of microplastic pollution. I try to follow all Sea Shepherd’s actions in the Bay of Biscay to save the dolphins. As soon as the orca and beluga whale were lost in Paris, I tried to support them as best I could. I recently went to the Faroe Islands for to try and prevent the massacres of whales. I’m always trying to get involved in my own small way. 

Did you already have some idea of the scenario when these creatures were found in the Seine? 

Yes, we already had the scenario in place, and the fact that these animals come to lose themselves in the Seine, it didn’t confirm anything. It only confirmed our decision to tell this story.

In the version I watched on Netflix in the United States, at the police station, the article posted on the board — about unexploded shells in the Seine — was in English. Why is that?

This was done in the immersive English version. All the written and sound elements are translated into English, but basically it’s all done in French. And in fact, that article about the shells was real. If you check on Google, theyreally did find 154 shells [from World War II] under the Austerlitz bridge two years ago, in the summer of 2022.

Some scenes are so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh. 

That’s deliberate. 

I imagine. But the danger is in making the next Sharknado, where it’s so far-fetched that nobody is scared.

It’s a balancing act between the quality of the action scenes, which have to be spectacular, and the fact that the only way to make it funny is for there to be an accumulation of deaths, and at the same time we try to do it well, that is we try to really respect the material and make it as beautiful and visually perfect as possible when we do it.

And having an Oscar-nominated actress in Bérénice Bejo also legitimizes the project a little.

That’s right. If you like, it’s a bit like having Meryl Streep in Don’t Look Up. In other words, you’ve got a great actress giving her all in a French entertainment film, and I think that makes the film all the more credible. And at the same time, it adds a slightly auteur-ist subtext, all while still being entertaining. 

Why aren’t more films of this type made in France?

I think it’s because it takes a lot of resources, and therefore a lot of courage, to be able to offer this kind of film. Because if these kinds of films don’t work, it’s an economic disaster for the French film industry. Because we can’t take the same risk as an American studio, given the fragility of our cinema. That we were able to make this is thanks to Netflix, which had the courage to come up with the means to tell this story. A French studio would never have gone there. 

Has the budget has been disclosed?

No, we’re not really allowed to talk about it. But in terms of the means for the ambitions I had for the film, Netflix followed me 100 percent on all my proposals, especially on the ending, which was completely ludicrous and surreal. But the point was to show a nihilistic ending like this one. And I’m lucky to have had Netflix France totally backing me on these decisions.

And do you think that Netflix France is on the same wavelength as Netflix U.S? Would the American Netflix have appreciated this nihilistic side?

I can’t speak for them, since my direct contacts were with Netflix France, who had the courage to go for it, and now we’re breaking records for a French film. And that allowed them to say to themselves that it was possible. But I don’t think an American film studio would have had the audacity to go for that kind of tone.

What specific records have you broken?

We’re the most-seen French film in history, that’s official. Today, I think we’ve passed 70 million views in three weeks, which is huge. And I’m not sure what the latest figures will be tomorrow, the third-week figures, but we’re back in the top ten of the most-viewed foreign-language films on the platform.

Do you mean the mostviewed French film in history on Netflix?

Yes, but in general, too. We’ve broken that record.

Did this success come as a surprise to you, or did it the gamble to be this successful for the film to work, economically? 

It had to be this success. I have to admit we’re surprised at where this is going. We didn’t expect it to reach these heights, and it motivates us to tell ourselves that we made the right choices and that we have to keep going in this direction.

What’s next? Will you now continue in the French vein or return to Hollywood? 

I want to continue to maintain the French cinema that I advocate for. Entertainment cinema, spectacular cinema, visually ambitious cinema. I still have links with the United States, because for me, it’s an integral part of my cinema. After the freedom of tone and creative freedom I have in France, I don’t want to lose it. So unless I had absolute freedom on a Hollywood film… I’d only go to Hollywood if I had that final cut.

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