The 7 Lives of Léa, a difficult-to-categorize French TV series recently released on Netflix, deals uncompromisingly with racism, sexism, ageism, domestic violence, body-shaming and sexuality. The heroine, Léa, wakes up on seven consecutive mornings in the body of a different person living 30 years earlier, in the 1990s, which leads to some strange situations.
We first meet 17-year-old Léa (Raika Hazanavicius) when she attends a rave in a remote gorge. In a drug-induced state of melancholia peppered with adolescent angst, she wanders away, reflecting on her small-town life and the prospect of being caught up in a dead-end spiral. Her meditation is abruptly ended by the discovery of a skeletal hand sticking up from the riverbed. She has found a body.
After a few hours in the police station, her parents pick her up, and she dozes off, exhausted after her atypical day. The next morning she awakens not only in an unfamiliar bedroom but also as someone else: a young man wearing the silver bracelet that was on the wrist she stumbled across a few hours earlier. She is now Ismaël.
When Léa explains to Ismaël’s younger brother, Soufiane, who she really is, the young science-fiction fan concludes that it must be a kind of body transfer. It is only when she sees that Terminator 2, a movie released exactly 30 years earlier, is about to hit local theaters, that she realizes that she has been transported to 1991. This classic movie, which involves time travelers trying to change the course of events in the past, subtly relates to the show’s plot without the link being made explicit.
While negotiating her new surroundings, sans cellphones or Internet, Léa soon decides that she must try to save Ismaël from whatever caused his death, but her efforts are thwarted when she wakes up as herself the following morning.
In 2021, the body is positively identified as Ismaël. Léa realizes that the anniversary of his disappearance is six days away. The next morning, she wakes up in 1991 again, this time in the body of her own mother. Over the next few days, this pattern continues: she inhabits, in turn, the bodies of her father, Ismaël’s older lover, the school bully, the high-school queen and finally Ismaël again, on the day of his death.
The show turns into a procedural when it transpires that Ismael died from a close-range shot in the head. Léa strives to unearth the murderer(s) and in the process falls in love with the victim. The plot takes darker turns when she realizes that any of the people she becomes might have done this terrible act, including her own parents. She faces the moral dilemma of incriminating them or, perhaps worse still, finding out that one or both of them is capable of such a heinous act.
The show is a fusion of genres, including fantasy, science-fiction and crime investigation, in that way that the French do so well, but it is ultimately a story about love and identity. The premise of bodily and temporal travel is never explained, and we are never sure that this is not a vivid hallucination or dream, calling to mind the centuries-old device of the philosophical dream. In Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1770 novel The Year 2440, a character awakens in the future and sees a democratic society without slavery (though still led by men); the reader never knows if it is a dream or a leap in time.
While authentically distilling the feel of the early 1990s in the same way that the series Stranger Things recreated the previous decade, The 7 Lives of Léa offers a fascinating exploration of the time paradox: the idea that something changed in the past can affect the traveler’s future. Léa begins to grasp the terrible prospect that her intrusion into her parent’s tempestuous early relationship might very well lead to them separating before she is born. The season’s conclusion is both unexpected and thought-provoking.
We are living in a golden age of television, and The 7 Lives of Léa amply demonstrates that France is part of it. Based on a 2019 young-adult novel by Nataël Trapp, the show has its own personality, reflected in the fact that the protagonist is Léa rather than the Léo in the novel.
This binge-worthy series is carried by its two impossibly beautiful leads. As Ismaël, Khalil Ben Gharbia gives a magnetic performance conveying both fragility and determination. Special mention for the show’s gorgeous setting, the Gorges du Verdon in Provence. The canyons and mountains loom large, acting as a convenient metaphor for the ambivalence that underpins the series: they are alluring but can be deadly, not unlike love itself.Favorite