|The loneliness of the long distance
With L'Exercice de l'Étât/The Minister, Pierre Schöller (of the very different Versailles) does an intense film about the pressures of being a French government minister in the film starring the Dardennes' regular Olivier Gourmet and produced by the Dardennes, costarring Michel Blanc, Zabou Breitman, and Laurent Stocker. This looks at the social issues from the top where the previous film looked at them from the bottom. The film takes Bertrand Saint-Jean (Gourmet) through the ringer of several kinds of shocking accidents and pressures from every direction as he strives as a new Transport Minister to maintain his idealism. This is a wonderfully intense film, which may evoke for the French things like the recent Sarkozy story The Conquest or for Americans The West Wing, but it takes several odd turns. Its failure to lead to a satisfying payoff is no doubt quite intentional.
Variety's French film specialist Peter Dubruge thinks "Subtitles alone won't be enough to translate The Minister for export," and indeed like The Conquest its top-levil politics are particularly Gallic. Though it's true that the French audience will read more allusions to their own specific politics here, political junkies of any nationalities will feel the juice. Moreover Michel Blanc is impeccable as ever and Goumet shines as much in a white collar role as he does for morally challenged working class men for the Dardennes. Gourmet is excellent here, conveying a sense of both power and vulnerability.
Bertrand wakes from a Helmut Newton dream of a naked girl climbing into the mouth of a live crocodile -- a not-so-subtle metaphor for his own state, and gets a call summoning him to a gruesome bus accident out in the country in which parents and children have died en masse. When he gets there, though, he's in constant touch with Gilles (Blanc), his assistant, and Pauline (Breitman), his PR person is on hand: what counts are the sound bites, more than the sympathy. Bertrand knows that and must live with it, but he doesn't exactly like it.
Bertrand is from nowhere. Most the pols are ancestral, as it were (like Gilles), and what the PM in particular wants from Bertrand is to carry out a process Bertrand himself opposes on deep principle, privatization of the railway system. It's a bit unlikely in France with its strong surviving social network, but this recurrent push to privatize stands for the compromises Bertrand must battle 24/7.
The film is best at showing Bertrand's personal struggle, but weak at working out a real drama of warring personalities and exciting developments in the manner of The West Wing's creator, Aaron Sorkin, or some of the British dramas of political conflict (Stephen Frears, Peter Morgan, et al.). We get the point that Bertrand sees his wife only for a caress or a quick roll in the hay and has no real company but the overly correct Gilles and the inarticulate unemployed person who's hired, with dubious practical judgment but perhaps a good eye for publicity, to be Bertrand's driver. A non-actor, Sylvain Deblé, was cast for the driver role and he adds an authentic flavor.
The Minister is full of passion for its subject even if it can't make fully satisfying drama out of it. The emphasis is not on machinations or heroics but the sheer struggle of maintaining one's dignity and one's functionality under incredible pressures. Amid all the talky sequences, there are several very striking set pieces that leave you with strong visual memories. A second accident sequence is well filmed, again emphasizing the protagonist's near-total isolation; but it seems located as a bit of a faux-climax. Julien Hirsch's photography is intense, if relying a bit much on closeups. Schöller's self-composed abstract concrete music backgrounds, sparsely used, add an original kind of harsh alienation effect.
The film debuted in the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes and won the Fipresci Prize there. It opened in Paris theaters October 26, 2011. When screened for this review during a matinee the UGC Danton at St. Germain all seats were filled, up to the first row, and the audience was rapt. With a somewhat small critical aggregation (17 reviews) the result on Allociné was universal acclaim (4.2, pretty much spanning the range of media audiences). However, like the earlier The Conquest, a detailed fictionalization of Sarkozy's rise to power, this will be a little bit harder for Anglo audiences to relate to, the more so because its protagonist isn't famous.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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