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Bertrand Tavernier Gets in the Loop with "The French Minister"

France's ruling elite has staged its share of psychodrama, but leave it to Bertrand Tavernier‘s new film The French Minister to replay it as farce. Adapted from the bestselling graphic novel Quai D’Orsay – Chroniques Diplomatiques, the film peeps behind the chaotic scenes at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and finds much to burlesque.

For starters, there's Foreign Affairs Minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms, an eccentric blue blood who's the very beacon of French Enlightenment, but also as surely an ADD sufferer. He's fit. He's charmant. He's played by veteran star Thierry Lhermite. That he's based on former Foreign Affairs Minister (and 2005-2007 Prime Minister) Dominique de Villepin supplies extra heft and helium; and that one of Villepin's speechwriters, Antonin Baudry, wrote the source material doubles the dose.

The games begin when de Worms engages a fresh grande école grad as his head of language. Tasked with crafting the minister's speeches, young Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) is suddenly thrust into the creaky cogworks of the ministry's Quai d'Orsay residence. Arthur is of course based on Baudry, who published under the nom de plume Abel Lanzac and who joined with his co-author Christopher Blain and Tavernier to create the screenplay.

As it turns out, Arthur's big assignment is the one de Worms will deliver at the United Nations Security Council. Savvy viewers will recognize it as precisely the one de Villepin gave in February 2003 decrying the Bush Administration's adventurism in Iraq. By the film's closing credits, this rousing appeal will have undergone untold revisions including an eye-crossing remix of slogans like "legitimacy," "unity" and "efficiency." The speech itself is similarly warranted, coherent and compact, suggesting that there may be a method to the minister's madness after all.

You'd hardly guess it from watching him on his home turf. Until he takes the UN dais, this de Worms is so full of hot air he sets papers flying every time he blasts into an office. On a typical day de Worms is lamenting the corruption of Russia's oligarchs or the greed of the Chinese. And don't get him started on the folly of American neoconservatives, who are spoiling for preventative war against the weaponized faux country of Lousdemistan -- the very situation de Worms' UN speech seeks to diffuse. Americans don't understand the Arabs, who, he's quick to remind, "invented the zero." With equal measures of pomposity and obliviousness, the silver-maned horse's ass even bloviates at a luncheon he throws for the Nobel Prizewinner in literature (Jane Birkin). At a press screening for the film's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema engagement at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Tavernier divulged the name of the real guest of honor: Toni Morrison.

To be sure, half the fun of the film is identifying its characters' real life models. Niels Arestrup's Chief of Staff Claude Maupas manages de Worms and French brinkmanship with the old-hand finesse of a Pierre Vimont. Bruno Raffaeili's Middle East and North Africa advisor sends up the self-importance of a Stéphane Cahut. And taking the smoke-out a gossipy step further is Julie Gayet, who plays de Worms' backstabbing Africa advisor and who made actual headlines as French President Francois Hollande's discarded squeeze.

To structure the film and lend it chapter headings are maxims from pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclites, which de Worms loves to quote. No matter that funnyman Lhermitte is for once playing it straight, he and such fustian sayings as, "Struggle is the father of all things" bear a whiff of the absurd.   

Yet for all the talk of Heraclites, the Minotaur's labyrinth is that image that leaps to mind from Greek antiquity. Arthur must butt his way through Quai d'Orsay's murky corridors, past double-crossing advisors and an insular tech cave where not even internet service is allowed to penetrate. How is he to help de Worms quell world passions -- and attain the Nobel Peace Prize -- as a captive of the petty technocrati? Fortunately, Arthur scores tips on how to handle his boss from Maupas, who considers the rookie scribe "the only one with a brain."

The French Minister is only the most recent entry in a growing roster of works airing the not-so-public face of public affairs. Two years ago came The Minister (L'exercice de l'État), Pierre Schoeller’s pacy satire about the French minister of transportation's personal and professional misadventures. Other Gallic titles include La Conquête, which followed the campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy; Les Hommes de l'ombre, plunging into electoral campaign politics against the backdrop of party intrigues; and La Rupture, a retelling of the 1976 joust between Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The trend unleashed television's Yes, Minister and The West Wing has also given way to political dramas and comedies such as The Thick of ItIn the Loop, House of Cards, Scandal and Veep, shown on the small screen in France and beyond.

Looking back on his own canon, Tavernier can count a few films that explore the pecking orders of power. His previous film, The Princess of Monpensier, was set amid the religious wars of the 16th century -- and by all appearances is a radically different exercise than The French Minister -- yet like his World War I picture Captain Conan (1996) and pre-Revolutionary court drama Let Joy Reign Supreme (1976), it too follows the force field of characters pulling rank. The French Minister, however, marks the 73-year-old-director's first foray into sending up contemporary politics.

The film combines the fly-on-the-wall feel of a documentary with the staccato pace of an actioner when de Worms is in the picture. It takes time to breathe during scenes with the metabolically calmer Maupas and with Arthur's schoolteacher girlfriend (Anaïs Demoustier), puncutating the story with dramatic touches. At 113 minutes, The French Ministry may try the patience of viewers who aren't political junkies or simply tire of the Kafkaesque run-around. (Surprisingly, though, as both Tavernier and Baudry told me at the screening, neither the graphic novel nor the film were inspired by Kafka.) Yet for most of us, it's the closest we'll ever get to the innerds of the ministry palace, and we're grateful for Tavernier's invitation.

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