2.5 out of 5 stars

The emergence and extreme profligacy of the “sharksploitation” subgenre is a little confusing to me. Is it just the influence of Jaws (1975)? Sure, that’s a great movie, but it inspired one pointless sequel, followed by a trashy third, and then a fourth that’s one of the worst films ever made. Moreover, Jaws novelist Peter Benchley has gone on record to say the subsequent cottage industry of shark thrillers has harmed the preservation of these majestic ocean animals, painting them as antagonists when of course we present a far greater threat to them than they do to us. Still, we’re a species that looks set to elect Donald Trump twice and allow another genocide to happen in the Middle East, so we’re not big on learning lessons.

I tend to take what Roger Ebert called a generic approach to film criticism, where I look at the genre of a film and ask if it’s fulfilling its requirements. With this in mind, Netflix’s Gallic addition to the sharksploitation subgenre, Under Paris / Sous la Seine, represents a middling point in its quality. It’s far above the absolute worst of its ilk, by which I don’t mean the six-film Sharknado series (2013-18). Those were bad enough, with their sludgy and smug pseudo-self-awareness. I’m more talking about stuff that gets 1.4/10 user scores on IMDb, like Jurassic Shark (2012) and Shark Exorcist (2014).

Under Paris is refreshingly unpainful when you’ve borne witness to “movies” of that nature, which honestly make Jaws: The Revenge (1987) look good and feel more like softcore fetish films with a light “shark attack” theme. Both Shark Exorcist and Jurassic Shark are limp excuses for showing girls in bikinis sunbathing, walking into the sea, and rolling around on the grass while “possessed” by a Satanic great white (don’t ask). Under Paris, meanwhile, at least has a plot and characters of sorts.

Sophia (Bérénice Bejo), a marine researcher, searches for a shortfin mako shark named Lilith. (Presumably named after Adam’s first wife and a primordial she-demon in Jewish mythology; a shark possessed by Lilith—now that would be a film!) In the prologue, her team is wiped out by Lilith, who then swims up the Seine in search of a little French cuisine. Sophia joins forces with women from a Greenpeace-like organisation and river police officer Adil (Nassim Lyes). However, the determined Mayor of Paris (Anne Marivin) prioritises keeping a sporting event on track, even if it means citizens become mackerel chow.

In this respect, the plot borrows heavily from Jaws. However, using these elements doesn’t make sense for Under Paris. Amity Island in Jaws was a small town reliant on tourism to survive (no pun intended). Craven, the mayor, was understandably hesitant to close the beaches when the following year’s financial returns depended on visitors. Here, it’s just one triathlon event—in one of the most famous and historic cities in the world—that the mayor is so determined to preserve, that she’ll risk dozens of lives even after several have died. She takes the official line that the shark is just a rumour when, frankly, it seems like it would be easier and better PR to postpone the event for a week or so while experts scour the Seine. Perhaps she modelled her political approach in this instance on Boris Johnson’s handling of COVID-19.

Not to mention that up to 50 witnesses filmed one catastrophe on their phones. At that point, it’s not a “rumour” to the general public that there are sharks in the Seine. It continues to amaze me that filmmakers haven’t yet grasped how quickly and irretrievably information travels now. At best, that ignorance leads to a plot hole like here, at worst you end up with death threats and lawsuits when something like Baby Reindeer (2024) comes out, because Netflix doesn’t realise that you shouldn’t oversell the “true story” side when a lot of terminally online people are not mature enough to deal with that and will use their smartphones to enact mob justice.

Returning to the ethics of “sharksploitation”, Under Paris does attempt to acknowledge the threat that humans pose to sharks and nature at large. This is shown through the Greenpeace-esque characters who fight for the public to challenge their politicians on behalf of a species being frivolously culled by overfishing. The most disturbing part of the film is the use of real footage of sharks being skinned and dismembered. It’s honestly a disgusting and infuriating display of the stupid, nihilistic folly in which we continue to engage. However, the messaging here rings hollow at best and is demonstrably dishonest at worst. Director and co-writer Xavier Gens (Hitman) doesn’t truly care about this issue, or he would not have made this film in this way. It is an exploitation piece that exists solely for the gore and set pieces.

Ultimately, Under Paris is pure pulp fiction, right down to its archetypal and occasionally gonzo take on human nature. An early scene features a character lecturing a class of children when one of them asks if it’s true that her team were eaten by sharks, and many start laughing at her traumatised reaction. Because these kids seemingly hail from the School for Gifted Sociopaths.

The acting is difficult to judge, partly because it’s been dubbed from French into English, but also because the screenplay is the kind that eschews irony. Even a great actor can only do so much with lines that preclude subtle interpretation and exist solely to advance the plot. In this sort of film, you only really notice the acting when it’s incompetent, and everyone here seems competent enough. Bejo doesn’t deliver a performance beyond “wounded and vulnerable,” but then again, the script doesn’t demand more. Once upon a time, a movie like this would give you something extra for your eyeballs by throwing in a sex scene between the lead actors—in this case, Bejo and Nassim Lyes. Nowadays, though, you need an intimacy coordinator for anything racier than a peck on the cheek, so there’s no chance of that.

Most of Under Paris is pretty thin gruel to me because it necessitates a lot of passage work I find it impossible to care about. In a way, a film like this needs to be less polished and professional to be entertaining, since in the absence of anything interesting among the human characters what I’m hoping for is gonzo insanity. What I did like is the gore; a scene in the catacombs in particular is an amusing set piece with a fair amount of blood, limbs, chaos, and teeth. The climax is worth sticking around for too; I wish that more of the film was pitched at that level. But Gens is content to sprinkle that stuff conservatively throughout the 104-minute runtime.

The film is about 15 minutes too long anyway and doesn’t have a proper ending. There’d typically be an erotic tension between the two leads to pad out and justify the story a bit, like the famous closing dialogue in Speed (1994) where Sandra Bullock tells Keanu Reeves that since relationships based on near-death experiences don’t last, they’ll have to base theirs on sex. As nothing like that exists in Under Paris beyond a very thin subplot between two lesbian characters, the film just sort of uses up its energy with the action climax, gets bored of itself, and then the credits roll. Nonetheless, once again I did like the gore and the action elements, and taking a generic approach I can say that a lot of viewers will probably get what they want from this. I just personally feel as though a 20-minute showreel of the action and gore scenes would have been the same experience.


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Cast & Crew

director: Xavier Gens.
writers: Yannick Dahan, Maud Heywang & Xavier Gens.
starring: Bérénice Bejo, Nassim Lyes, Léa Léviant, Sandra Parfait, Aksel Ustun, Aurélia Petit, Marvin Dubart, Daouda Keita & Ibrahima Ba.