Still from 'Osmosis'.
“Are you ready to find out what love truly is?” asks a disembodied voice in a brightly-lit chamber. Three participants explain their reasons for putting their quest for a soulmate at the mercy of a revolutionary but untested brain implant. An increasingly dramatic piano soundtrack accompanies nightmarish images, suggesting that they’d have been better sticking to Tinder.
You can understand why the trailer for Netflix’s third French-language series immediately drew comparisons with a certain dystopian anthology. However, over the course of eight immersive episodes, Osmosis proves it’s not merely a carbon copy of Black Mirror’s twisted tech tales.
Based in a Parisian near-future where roads are always traffic-free and monochrome slacks are the height of fashion, Osmosis is the story of a pioneering new dating app which assures its 12 beta testers a 100% match. The revolutionary implant, which decodes brain data, promises to find even the unluckiest in love a guaranteed soulmate. Simply swallow the brain-hacking pill, allow the algorithms to work their magic and watch your dream partner’s face magically appear in the form of a slightly creepy 3D vision. Then there’s just the matter of staging an accidental meeting, literally charming the pants off them and living happily for all eternity, apparently never arguing about the correct way to stack a dishwasher. Of course, it soon becomes clear that the company with access to the trialists’ every electrical impulse isn’t exactly the model of patient ethics. So far, so Black Mirror.
However, this Gallic original is actually far more interested in exploring problems of a human rather than technological nature. In fact, Osmosis is at its most compelling when it delves into the intriguing brother-sister relationship between the app’s co-founders, Esther (Agathe Bonitzer) and Paul (Hugo Becker). We first meet the former enjoying her virtual friend-with-benefits during some downtime at Osmosis’ sleek, shiny headquarters, an early sign that the brains of the operation isn’t particularly comfortable with human interaction. Esther spends most of her days snapping at colleagues, communicating with a hyper-developed AI named Martin and escaping from reality via a VR headset and a horny, sharp-suited beefcake (hey, who wouldn’t, right?).
Face of the company Paul, on the other hand, is an unapologetically arrogant individual with a very real partner, several trusted allies who either want to be him or shag him, and a genuine desire to change the world – no matter how ill-prepared he may be for such a lofty challenge.
Despite their contrasting personalities, it’s clear the Vanhove siblings care deeply for one another. We quickly learn that Esther’s genius mind helped rescue her brother from a degenerative condition, a feat she’s now trying to repeat with her comatose mother. Paul, meanwhile, appears constantly wracked with guilt over the dark, long-held family secret guaranteed to shatter his sister’s existence. Hinted at in repeated flashbacks, it’s this secret which forms the crux of Osmosis’ central mystery, eventually permeating the minds of the trial’s three main participants.
The youngest participant, Niels, played by Manoel Dupont, is portrayed as a petulant sex addict who poses a blatant danger to his kindred spirit. Unarguably the show’s biggest misfire, Niels and his algorithmic soulmate appear toxic (but surely will inspire countless shipping Tumblr accounts nonetheless). Thankfully, the two other digitally-assisted love stories are far more engaging. Ana (Luna Silva) is initially presented as an eternal singleton whose lack of conventional beauty (by showbiz standards, obviously) has prompted the drastic measure of relying on the titular sinister dating app. But just as you’re expecting her to whip out a hairbrush and belt out a power ballad a la Bridget Jones, it’s revealed her intentions aren’t quite so honourable.
Lucas (Stéphane Pitti) is no angel either, having only signed up as a guinea pig to determine whether his devoted-but-unexciting boyfriend or passionate-but-wayward ex is ‘the one’. His cruel dismissiveness towards the former makes it difficult to muster much sympathy for his subsequent unravelling, but his angst-ridden love triangle is still easily the most involving of all the romantic subplots.
However, the show’s surprise MVP turns out to be Esther’s s loyal assistant. An androgynous parental figure, Billie (Yuming Hey) brings much-needed warmth to the cold, clinical Osmosis labs, lighting up the screen every time they grace it sporting a pair of immaculate high heels.
Of course, it’s the sci-fi aspect of Osmosis that will draw in many viewers. Creator Audrey Fouché, a writer on hit French drama Les Revenants, has built a world which feels alien but still grounded in enough reality to be convincing as an imminent possibility. With its space-age pods and flashy computer interfaces, the Osmosis HQ in particular is an impressive display of production design; and the reported €1 million-per-episode budget is also put to good use during the majestic shots of Paul and ballerina wife Swann, played by Suzanne Rault-Balet, nakedly floating around in virtual space.
Perhaps the main difference between Osmosis and Black Mirror is the lack of a general “technology is bad” narrative. Sure, with a 20% margin of error, the Vanhoves’ creation isn’t infallible. But the biggest issues which affect both those pulling and being pulled by the strings arise from very human conditions – grief, impatience, fear, over-ambition, a general disillusionment with the real world. Even in Hang the DJ – the Black Mirror episode most closely aligned with Osmosis’ premise – the relatively happy ending is undercut by the fact that countless sentient AIs had to suffer first. Here, the characters are in control, not the machines.
Indeed, the Paris of Osmosis is nowhere near as slavish to technology as the many brain-implanting worlds depicted in Black Mirror’s last season. Unlike the memory-visualising devices in Crocodile, Osmosis isn’t mandatory, nor is it designed to invade privacy like the helicopter parenting system in Arkangel. It also can’t trap your comatose spouse’s consciousness inside a discarded plush monkey for all eternity (see Black Museum). Ultimately, the Vanhoves’ intentions are noble, if slightly naïve, and still allow individuals their free will.
Lucas may be using the implant to solve his good guy/bad boy dilemma, but it’s still his choice to act upon the information it provides. Likewise Ana, who must decide whether a relationship with her not-so-booksmart personal trainer is more important than her ulterior motive for partaking in the trial.
Whereas its obvious predecessor often paints technology as a tool of oppression, a form of mind control or cause of general mass destruction, Osmosis delivers a more optimistic proclamation. Humankind and machines can in fact live in relative harmony, and without the fear of murderous robot dogs, head-exploding video games or hashtag-powered genocides. And should disaster strike, it’s more likely to be us pesky humans to blame.