How a stupid French shark thriller took over Netflix

A scene from Under Paris
A scene from Under Paris - Sofie Gheysens/Netflix

There’s something fishy about Netflix’s top 10 movie countdown this month. Amidst the traditional scrum of thrillers, chillers and fillers, the streamer’s leaderboard of most-watched films features the distinctive outline of a dorsal fin accelerating through the surf. Sharkmania has come to the binge-watch mothership – in the unlikely form of a French eco-parable directed by a former Jean-Claude Van Damme collaborator.

Under Paris is a simple movie that asks a straightforward question. What if a saltwater mako shark were to swim up the Seine, embark on a snacking spree and then disturb preparations for the Paris Olympics by crashing a triathlon and eating all the swimmers?

The answer is that, if things end badly for the swimmers – and a glorious time awaits Netflix subscribers, who have made Under Paris a worldwide streaming smash since its release last week. Forget Mad Max spin-offs or another Planet of the Apes. The hit film everyone is talking about this summer is a micro-budget straight-to-Netflix splatter-fest in which a group of annoying eco-warriors become a bonus lunch for a peckish predator. It’s the Taylor Swift Era’s Tour of guilty pleasure blockbusters – popular, ubiquitous and larger than life in a way.

Directed by Xavier Gens, Under Paris has all that anyone could require of an A-grade b-movie. It has arrived with zero hype (because nobody actively looks forward to a b-picture – they are supposed to rise unheralded from the depths). It is occasionally gory, consistently silly, with enough plot holes to accommodate one of the police patrol dinghies that come unstuck in the final 30 minutes.

Best of all, it takes itself entirely seriously. This is the key ingredient in any so-bad-it’s-good film experience. There is no shortage of bad shark movies that know they are bad shark movies – the entire Sharknado franchise, for instance. However, Under Paris believes it has a serious message about humanity’s damaging impact on the environment, which makes the ensuing ludicrousness all the more rewarding.

Director Gens is no carnival barker. He worked on the acclaimed action series Gangs of London and was shortlisted for the Césars (the French Baftas) for 2019 coming-of-age drama  Papicha, which he co-produced. The talent extends to the cast – star Bérénice Bejo received Best Supporting Actress nominations at the Oscars and Baftas for 2011’s The Artist, written and directed by her husband Michel Hazanavicius (for which he won the Oscar for Best Director).

Under Paris opens in a polluted corner of the Pacific where researcher Sophia (Bejo) is attempting to tag a Shortfin mako shark. Awkwardly, all the environmental vandalism has seemingly caused the shark to mutate and become both super-sized and super-smart. After it eats Sophia’s husband, she bravely (i.e. stupidly) dives in and is then dragged by the beastie into the inky depths, where she mysteriously survives the sudden change of pressure and swims to freedom.

Years later, she is getting on with her life in Paris. Or at least she would be if the shark had not slunk up the Seine, where it has made digs in the catacombs beneath the city and is giving birth to zillions of baby sharks. Sophia is told all this by self-satisfied environmentalist Mika, who wants to track down the shark and rescue it.

Oscar-nominee Bérénice Bejo plays a researcher
Oscar-nominee Bérénice Bejo plays a researcher - Niete Rodriguez/Netflix

Even before the shark drifts back on to the screen, Under Paris is a glorious mess. How can a saltwater shark survive in freshwater? Because the pollution has reconfigured its metabolism. Meanwhile, the environmental message is warped by the fact that the eco-warriors with whom Sophia comes into contact are massively irritating – and are punished for being annoying when the shark eats them in a scene played for both gore and laughs.

Then there is the Olympics angle. To highlight Paris’s preparedness for the games, the headstrong mayor is pushing ahead with a showcase triathlon, starting with 1,000 swimmers powering through the Seine. She is unmoved when Sophia and a maritime police officer inform her that a giant shark is larking about on the lookout for its supper. The swim will proceed, she insists mayor-from-Jaws-style.

There are many other gloriously daft set-pieces. For instance, that opening sequence beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a real-life miasma of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean made up of micro plastics covering 1.6 million square kilometres (roughly three times the size of France). It is beneath this layer of junk that Sophia’s husband and his crew are outsmarted by a  huge shark that drifts past and then – who’d have thought? – suddenly becomes aggressive and eats them all. Further silliness awaits later on, as the shark picks off triathlon participants one by one without any of the other swimmers seeming to notice, and then bumps into the viewing platform, causing the assembled dignitaries to immediately lose their footing and run headlong into the water.

A scene from Under Paris
A scene from Under Paris - Sofie Gheysens/Netflix

While the mayor is never identified by name, Parisians will see her as a wink towards the controversial real-life incumbent, Anne Hidalgo, who has sparked a backlash over her push to turn the huge sprawl of the French capital into a controversial “15 minute city” – prompting claims of prioritising well-to-do urban trendies over lower middle class working stiffs in the suburbs. To quote one opposition politician, “The poorest segment of Paris’s population isn’t the one who’s enjoying Hidalgo’s bike lanes and spending their nights partying on the café terraces”.

It would be going too far to suggest the shark in Under Paris is a metaphor for the 15 minute city – though given the fate suffered by the pesky environmentalists, who knows? – but Hidalgo’s pledge to clean the “stinky” Seine of pollutants ahead of the Olympics certainly invites comparisons with her reckless on-screen lookalike. She has promised to swim in the freshly-decontaminated Seine – a vow potentially as foolhardy as the mayor’s decision in Under Paris to proceed with the triathlon in the midst of a shark infestation. That’s as far as the satire ventures, though. There is no Emmanuel Macron stand-in – nor any commentary on opposition in Paris to the Olympics.

Under Paris features a mayor modelled after Ann Hidalgo
Under Paris features a mayor modelled after Ann Hidalgo

You can guess how it all ends – or perhaps you can’t. There is one final twist involving unexploded military ordnance at the bottom of the Seine, which, when it becomes very-much-exploded military ordinance, has a profound impact on the city’s topography. Suffice to say all those new bike lanes they’ve been slapping down in Paris are suddenly surplus to requirements.

Netflix has been pumping out guilty pleasure movies in gargantuan quantities in recent years. They include The Mother, in which Jennifer Lopez tries to protect her daughter from her evil arms dealer father (Joseph Fiennes), and Gal Gadot’s Heart Of Stone, where the Wonder Woman actress battles an evil supercomputer (even more wicked than her pandemic full-body tackle on John Lennon’s Imagine).

These films are dependably dire and are part of the great dumbing-down strategy embarked upon since 2016 by Netflix chief content officer Bela Bajaria, who has described the ideal streaming offering as a “gourmet cheeseburger”. But none has cut through as spectacularly as Under Paris. What’s the secret of its success? The twisting, turning storyline? The relative exoticism of the French setting and a cast who all look like they’ve strolled straight out of Lupin or Call My Agent?

Of course not – it’s the giant shark. Ever since Jaws, sharks have been irresistible to audiences. Oddly, the worse the quality, the warmer the reception. There have been good shark movies – the 2003 independent film Open Water and the 2016 Blake Lively thriller The Shallows. But nobody cares about those. We want cheesy, bloody chum-fests – such as the 1999 hokum extravaganza Deep Blue Sea (where the terrible CGI is part of the charm) and Jason Statham’s The Meg parts one and two, which exist simply to pose the question “what would happen if Jason Statham were to punch a giant prehistoric shark – twice?”

Why do we prefer our shark features over-cooked and slathered in movie-making gorgonzola? Perhaps it’s all Steven Spielberg’s fault. With Jaws in 1975, he crafted the perfect creature-feature – tense, funny, action-packed and horrifying. You can’t improve on a flawless movie and the best shark movies haven’t bothered trying. Instead, they’ve decided the smartest policy when it comes to huge marine predators is to jump the shark – and we’ve been all too happy to go with them on their journey b-picture nirvana.

Such is the proud tradition Under Paris follows. It sits equidistant from early hype for the Paris Olympics, our enduring love of giant predatory fish and the public yearning for a summer event film that demands you leave your brain at the door. It ticks all three boxes, then eats the boxes, and belches up the remains – precisely what you would want from any decent popcorn flick at this time of the year.