In the 2019 French Netflix show Mythomaniac (Mytho in the original French), creator Fabrice Gobert, who brought us the neo-zombies of Les Revenants, focuses on the zombification of contemporary suburban lifestyles.
Most horror takes place in suburbia, as if to confirm our unsettling suspicion that drab normalcy hides a multitude of things that can haunt, hurt or shock us. The remote ancestor of Mythomaniac was the popular American sitcom Bewitched (1964-72), in which a rising young executive’s wife, Samantha Stephens, turned out to be a witch with incredible powers at her disposal. Her husband, Darrin, longed for more conventional domesticity and a more placid spouse. This situation allowed the series to crystallize wider social changes and tensions in the United States, including redefined roles for women. It is no coincidence that the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, just before “Bewitched” began, and that the show ended a few months after Roe v. Wade (1973) legalized abortion.
Mythomaniac is a gritty show belying its categorization as a dramedy (a fusion of drama and comedy). While there are moments of levity, it deals with some serious issues. Even so, it is still worth making a commitment to this original, thought-provoking show underpinned by that very French concept of a thoroughly ambivalent heroine, as in the protagonist of Mme de Lafayette’s story of doomed love, La Princesse de Clèves (1678), Manon Lescaut in Abbé Prévost’s novel of the same name (1731), Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary (1856), and the amoral bored housewife in Luis Buñuel’s film Belle de Jour (1967).
All of these figures share certain characteristics with Elvira Giannini, the main character in Mythomaniac: we veer between sympathy for their sorry situation and sheer exasperation at some of their choices. Perhaps we relate to these women because we are them. Mme Giannini, c’est moi!
The show revolves around Elvira’s disastrous decision to lie about the results of a biopsy on lumps in her breast. She does not do this in any premeditated or willfully calculating way, but rather by accident. When she sees herself becoming visible at last to people who have previously taken her completely for granted, she perpetuates the deception, which spirals out of her control and inevitably ends up having a tremendous impact on her family and friends.
The show is essentially about the alienation of some aspects of modern life and how people can be physically in proximity to others yet detached from them, often because of the screens they hold in front of their faces.
The show opens with a pan across a row of neat detached houses, until the camera stops on a commotion of emergency services in front of one of them. A body is carried out while curious neighbors stand around and watch. We later discover that a woman had poisoned her husband’s ravioli then smothered him with a cushion she’d made for their 50th wedding anniversary.
Immediately after, we see Elvira wake up with a start and rush around making breakfast, getting her three children ready for school and being inundated with questions. The juxtaposition of the domestic murder and Elvira’s downtrodden existence sets the scene and implicitly responds to the question: what would drive a woman to kill her husband in such a gruesome way?
After the children have left for school, Elvira talks about an upcoming medical appointment with her partner, Patrick, who casually dismisses her worries then phones his mistress after she leaves. He pointedly does not accompany her. While she is at the consultation, Elvira receives a phone call from her daughter, not to wish her luck but to complain that her denim jacket is missing.
The news is good: Elvira has fatty growths that mimick cancerous nodules, caused by stress and the pressures of parenting and work. “Modern female slavery, is all,” says the doctor.
Elvira’s descent into faking her illness is made possible by her job as an insurance assessor, which gives her access to medical documentation. She uses her expertise in detecting false claims to bolster her fabricated condition.
When her family learns that they may lose her, everything changes. Patrick gives up his lover and asks Elvira to marry him. Her children become affectionate, and her friends no longer see her merely as a babysitter or a shoulder to cry on. Things get complicated, however, when a blog started by Virginie, the youngest daughter, about having a mom battling cancer goes viral.
Marina Hands, who plays Elvira, gives an astonishing performance, with the slightest changes in her facial expression conveying repressed anguish, disappointment or anger.
Her eccentric boss, Mr. Brunet, is obsessed with insurance scams and believes his work to be a sacred calling. After complaining that her performance has been poor of late, he startles Elvira by telling her what ails her: “A life of after-school pickups. Ungrateful children. A distant husband. Days off spent at the supermarket. Every day, you go home exhausted. But laundry needs washing. Dinner needs cooking. It’s like working two jobs. So inevitably you’re tired. And you screw up.” This unexpected diagnosis cuts her to the quick and constitutes the catalyst for her desperate course of action.
The show rewards the viewer with its rich characterizations. We see what Elvira doesn’t always grasp: everyone has their own burdens to face, from Patrick’s insecure and lonely pharmacist lover to her son/daughter’s difficulties with a gender transition. A second season is planned, hinting, perhaps, that happier times may lay ahead for poor Elvira.