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Hache tells the story of Helena (Adriana Ugarte), a prostitute who ends up the favourite of powerful organized crime head Malpica (Javier Rey), a violent man with a bad leg and a morphine addiction to numb the pain.Daniel Escuela/Netflix

Netflix’s near-monopoly on streaming is nearing an end with the recent launch of Disney+ and AppleTV+. And yet Netflix still has the biggest library of TV series from around the world. That’s why some consumers will stay loyal to the service, ignoring the small set of so-so series that Apple offers, so far, and the glut of familiar-looking, family-friendly guilty pleasures that Disney provides.

Every now and then, a gloriously odd, provocative and compelling series turns up on Netflix, offering something with potency, just that far outside the usual, that you watch in mild but acute amazement that such TV content exists.

Hache (now streaming on Netflix Canada) is one of those. The short synopsis does not do it justice: “Helena gains the love of a dangerous heroin cartel leader in 1960s Barcelona and she hones the skills she needs to rise up the ranks.” From that, you get the picture that this is a melodrama about a woman becoming the boss of a drug cartel. Well, that’s been done before. Thing is, here, the story is so wildly tangled and strangely shaped that it obviously comes from a very different trajectory of storytelling. It’s a heady concoction that’s literary, disturbing and angry.

First, being set in and around Barcelona in the 1960s, it is highly stylized with lavish attention to period detail in clothing styles, pop music, cars and everything else in the local backdrop. But simultaneously, the actual story is so rooted in naturalism that Émile Zola might have written it. If, that is, Zola had been free to include sex, nudity, suggestions of perverse sexual violence and a tone of unsettling sensuality that is as intriguing as it is disturbing.

All the rest of Zola-style extreme-form realism is there, and, in particular, his emphasis on the moulding of character through the environment and his anger at the exploitation of the most economically vulnerable people.

The story moves with a relentless sense of doom, even while unfolding in beautifully depicted settings.Daniel Escuela/Netflix

When we first meet Helena (Adriana Ugarte, in an extraordinarily brave performance), she’s a sex worker who has stolen the wallet of her most recent client. He gives chase and she runs into the Albatross Club, a swish nightclub run by Malpica (Javier Rey) that caters to wealthy clients. Helena is stunned by this glamorous world. Also, she is beaten by the client and obliged to do a sexual favour for Malpica.

As the story then unfolds, very much like a 19th-century novel, it becomes clear that Helena is doing sex work because she’s desperate. Her boyfriend, the father of her little girl, is in jail and needs a lawyer. He’s jailed because he’s a left-wing union agitator, and a security guard died when a strike by workers went awry. Also, her mother has tuberculosis and needs money to pay for medication. Further, the rent is late and she could be evicted.

It’s very Victorian, the plotting, but also seething with outrage at the circumstances of Helena’s life. Being set in the 1960s, remember, this is about authoritarian, Franco-era Spain. Corruption is rife, the class system is rock-hard and anyone with leftist leanings is essentially an outlaw.

The only establishment organization that operates outside the rigid Franco-era system is the drug-smuggling outfit run by Malpica. And the freedom from the system he achieves emboldens him to operate a private empire with a retinue of women who are branded with an “M.” A morphine addict who blames the addiction on an injury received while doing army service, Malpica is not so much a monster as he is a creature created by the environment of Spain at the time.

Meanwhile, a newly arrived police officer, Inspector Vinuesa (Eduardo Noriega), wants to investigate the killings of two dock workers he suspects were caught up in the drug trade. But he’s blocked by his superiors and learns more from a reporter than from his police colleagues. The reporter was, of course, blocked from actually writing the story.

Being set in and around Barcelona in the 1960s, Hache is highly stylized with lavish attention to period detail in clothing styles, pop music, cars and everything else in the local backdrop.Daniel Escuela/Netflix

There are few moral quandaries in Hache. The story moves with a relentless sense of doom, even while unfolding in beautifully depicted settings. There are no quandaries because the story is about the environment that shapes the characters and determines their future.

Hache – created by a woman, Veronica Fernandez, specifically for Netflix – is that strange beast you find arriving from another cultural universe. On the one hand, it can be viewed as a period-piece thriller about drugs, and an ambitious woman using her allure to conquer men and take control. Be warned, mind you, that even at that superficial level it’s not easy viewing. On the other hand, it is open to multilayered interpretation, and can be seen as a political, twisted, sensuous and transgressive work. It’s as slippery and as strange as Zola’s novel Nana. That is, it’s a study of temperaments moulded by society, not a character study at all.

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