Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier.
Written by: Christophe Blain & Abel Lanzac.
Starring: Thierry Lhermitte (Alexandre Taillard de Worms), Raphaël Personnaz (Arthur Vlaminck), Niels Arestrup (Claude Maupas), Bruno Raffaelli (Stéphane Cahut), Julie Gayet (Valérie Dumontheil), Anaïs Demoustier (Marina), Thomas Chabrol (Sylvain Marquet), Thierry Frémont (Guillaume Van Effentem), Alix Poisson (Odile), Marie Bunel (Martine), Jean-Marc Roulot (Bertrand Castela), Sonia Rolland (Nathalie), Didier Bezace (Jean-Paul François), Jane Birkin (Molly Hutchinson).
French director Bertrand Tavernier has never really been known for comedies. Most of his films are dark, violent and disturbing. But his latest film, The French Minister is an over the top political satire that at times plays almost like a screwball comedy. The dialogue comes fast and fierce, and much of it is funny. Tavernier does some interesting, but subtle, things with his camera and the performances all work quite well. But somehow the movie never quite comes together. Perhaps it’s because the movie’s satire – about an imbecile politician, and his staff, is fairly safe and predictable and kind of like picking low hanging fruit. It’s obviously a smart movie; I just wish it was a little more daring.
The film stars Raphaël Personnaz as Arthur Vlaminck, a young, idealist with left win tendencies who is hired to be in charge of “words” for the French Foreign Minister, Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte) – a man who thinks he knows everything, but pretty much knows nothing, and speaks in meaningless, easy platitudes but says he wants to speak in anything but meaningless, easy platitudes. He immediately assigns Arthur to write a few speeches for him – and for the rest of the movie, he’ll have him rewrite them again and again and again – send him to everyone on his staff to get input, that he doesn’t really care about, and send him various poets and intellectuals to spice things up – even though they completely disagree with each other. Numerous crisis’ come up during the course of the movie – and they’re all handled, not by the minister, but by his chief of staff (Niels Arestrup) – who is the minister’s opposite in pretty much every way. The movie moves quickly – with one comic set piece coming on the heels of another, as Arthur tries in vain to please everyone. He’s good at his job – the speeches are fine when they start, but as soon as everyone needs input, and the Minister has him change it constantly, things go wrong.
The reason to see the movie is for two of the performances. Lhermitte has the showiest role, and he rips into it with glee. Everything the Minister does, he does fast – it’s amusing to see him pop off on different sides of the frame within a few seconds of each other because he’s going so fast. He also seems like a real politician when he speaks – saying nothing of value, but doing it with real conviction. It’s a fine performance. Even better is Arestrup, who knows that Lhermitte is going to over the top, and that everyone else in the movie is going to be loud, and talk in rapid fire bursts, so he goes the precise opposite way. He speaks softly – so softly that at times he almost seems to be trailing off into nothing. He also speaks slowly. And unlike the Minister, he doesn’t have time to say platitudes – he actually gets things done.
The French Minister is enjoyable without ever being truly involving. It is a satire, but a rather gentle one – one that lacks any real bite, or any real insight into politics that hasn’t been done better, numerous times over the decades. For Tavernier, the film is an interesting departure – perhaps he just wanted to have fun late in his career after years of doing darker movies. He handles everything well – it’s just that the screenplay somewhat lets him, and the cast, down.