Compelling and strange, Black Butterflies is an intriguing diversion that is likely to linger long after the six episodes have concluded.
This review of Black Butterflies season 1 is spoiler-free.
Butterflies in popular media always symbolize life’s delicacy, the susceptibility of fate to even the faintest wingbeats. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that the six-part French Netflix series Black Butterflies (otherwise known as Les Papillons Noirs) hinges on the idea of love, destiny, and life being dependent on the crosscurrents of so many tiny competing factors; the right people finding each other at the right time, their union rippling through history and their actions making for quite the story.
That’s the highfalutin way of putting it, anyway. Another way is this: Black Butterflies is about a struggling novelist named Adrien, who is working as a ghostwriter in lieu of his own original ideas, meeting and agreeing to write the memoirs of an elderly man named Albert. He soon realizes, though, that he isn’t recounting a love story looking back from the twilight of one’s life, but the confessions of serial murderers – and he hasn’t been chosen as scribe on a whim.
Created and written by Bruno Merle and Olivier Abbou, Black Butterflies explores the novelist’s fascination for the macabre and how there is some close relationship between the best and worst of things; between love and hate, life and death, passion and brutality. Albert, insular and bullied as a child, is dying and wants to share his life from the moment he met his love, Solange, and their story began to intertwine with violence.
The crux of the story relies on the relationship between Adrien and Albert, but also in the story being recounted, and the potential punishment for its darker turns, manifested in the present day by a policeman named Carrel. It’s a classic narrative setup of parallel strands gradually intertwining, united by common themes, characters, and ideas, and amounting to tension and violence.
The gothic qualities of Black Butterflies make it well-suited to an October release – it isn’t strictly a horror production, but it can be horrifying, and it makes a looming presence of its atmosphere. It also deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, tying ideas together in metaphors, heavy-handed biblical elusions, and specific imagery. It’s the kind of show you’re likely to think about for a good while after its conclusion, putting various pieces together, which gives it some staying power beyond the obvious pull of the narrative’s twists and turns.
At the end of the six episodes, there might remain a feeling of everything not being entirely tied up in a satisfying way, but that’s the risk you run when you’re dealing with this kind of deliberate obfuscation. Perhaps the point is to never quite understand, to always wonder if there was a detail overlooked or an implication missed. Some viewers will inevitably find that frustrating, but most will likely find it an intriguing after-effect of a brief yet compelling series.
You can stream Black Butterflies season 1 exclusively on Netflix.