Bertrand Tavernier’s "The French Minister" reaches America this Friday 40 years after his feature debut, 1974's "The Clockmaker." At 72, Tavernier shows no signs of slowing his eclectic experimentation: the film marks his first attempt at straight-up comedy and opened strong in France, though cumulative admissions at home didn’t eclipse 2010's vigorous medieval adventure "The Princess Of Montpensier" or 2008's New Orleans-set, Tommy Lee Jones-starring mystery "In The Electric Mist," three films that are a representative sampling of Tavernier’s genre-sampling career.
The original title for "The French Minister" is "Quai D'Orsay," the Paris wharf where the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located. Enter cautiously idealistic Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz), hired as speechwriter to minister Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry Lhermitte). Taillard is a nearly-literal whirlwind, whose door-slamming entries and exits send papers flying into brief tornadic spirals within a seemingly infinite warren of claustrophobic connecting passages. Tavernier’s major visual constant is a camera moving with impossibly fast urgency, craning and tracking its way to a faster tempo, and the comedy’s less driven by punchlines than sheer kinetics. Largely confined indoors this time, Tavernier fulfills his need for speed through viciously fast whip-pans underlined by appropriately cartoonish foley cracks.
"I want the camera to move with the same speed as the character, and sometimes push the character if needed," he explained in a recent interview. "I don’t believe in what some of the directors say, like [William] Wyler, that you must not notice the camera movement. If you move the camera, you must notice it — or if not, you must not move at all and stay still."
The intensely cinephilic co-author of a 1,300-page history of 50 years of American film, Tavernier’s restless movement has some roots in his affinity for the films of Samuel Fuller, in which the camera sometimes speeds so fast it starts shaking: per Tavernier, it "seems to push the characters toward their destiny."
That destiny is to slam into a noble but helpless attempt to stave off American belligerence. The time is around 2003, as the US prepares to invade "Ludmenistan." After nearly two hours of futile constant rewriting and endlessly petty bureaucratic infighting, Arthur’s shocked to hear the buffoonish minister deliver an eloquent denunciation of America's plans to the UN. It's a futile gesture gratifying for its improbability and saddening in its principled futility. The UN climax features a near-invisible detail Tavernier expresses pride over. "The extras they picked all belonged to the nationality they were representing," he marveled. "They all knew the speech and they all had worked out their reaction according to what their government had done at the time. The Pakistani guy said, 'I love the speech, I am one of the first to applaud.' The British guy said, 'I will say nothing, I will look at the American delegate.'"
Tavernier's always happy to talk film, especially since while making a movie he watches none, though film quizzes are part of the call sheets. (On the promotional grind, he was looking forward to having some time off to sneak over to the Museum of Modern Art and catch "Wild Girl," a 1932 Raoul Walsh film he’d never seen.)
"The French Minister" has one of his oddest cinephilic references, when the minister and his author friend bliss out over memories of Meryl Streep in "The Bridges Of Madison County." Trying to imagine the mentalities of each American state theoretically represented at the UN, they dilate on Iowa. Tavernier initially thought of a line about John Wayne being from Des Moines but rejected it as too on the nose. But "Bridges" fit: "It’s something that the minister could say, he has that culture to prove that he has seen a film by Clint Eastwood," Tavernier said. "Because the film had tremendous success, he thinks that quoting the film would impress all the delegates at the UN, which is madness."
Taillard's concluding speech is the one really given by former minister Dominique de Villepin, former boss of graphic novel source/screenplay co-writer Antonin Baudry. Tavernier's aware that he's criss-crossing the same territory as 2009's "In The Loop" — another bureaucratic comic slog to the Iraq invasion climaxing at the UN. The director loves the film and saw it three times when it came out, but the graphic novel was written long before.
In any case, Tavernier's one reservation about "In The Loop" is its tempo: too many brief shots, all in "the same rhythm." A closer reference point might be Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (though "I don't compare it," Tavernier hastened to add). That film shows "the amount of fighting, of compromise, of lies which were necessary to have that amendment." Lesson learned: "What is important in a political decision is the decision. Sometimes some of the best, the greatest political speeches and decisions, were taken in an atmosphere of total, total chaos."
Nor was Tavernier particularly interested in another recent potentially relevant recent precedent, "The Conquest," Xavier Durringer's 2011 satirical take on former president Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to power. Too many punchlines and not enough emphasis on people working behind the scenes, he said, and "every character is a public figure, there are all known. In our film, outside of the minister nobody is known. The chief of staff is somebody that never gave any interviews, he never appeared on television."
Behind the scenes labor, Tavernier said, is a recurring interest: think of the army major tasked in 1989's "Life And Nothing But" with assigning names and faces to the anonymous WWI dead or the persevering pre-school teacher in 1999's "It All Starts Today." The difference here, Tavernier added, is time: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is "not like education, where normally it stops at 7. You have very rarely something happening in the middle of the night at a school."
Chaos is a constant, he said, "like a film set."