'Quai d’Orsay' Is Now 'The French Minister'

An Interview with Director Bertrand Tavernier

by Jose Solis

27 March 2014

Based on a popular graphic novel, The French Minister is Bertrand Tavernier's first flat-out comedy.
cover art

The French Minister

Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Cast: Thierry Lhermitt, Raphaël Personnaz, Niels Arestrup, Bruno Raffaelli, Julie Gayet and Anaïs Demoustier

Published in 2010, the graphic novel Quai d’Orsay became a sensation in France for its depiction of national politics. A thinly disguised account of what it was like to work under Dominique de Villepin (Foreign Minister during Jacques Chirac’s government) the novel was written by Abel Lanzac (pseudonym for the Minister’s former aid Antonin Baudry) and illustrated by Christophe Blain. At the center of the story is Minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms, an imposing, energetic man who hires the meek Arthur Vlaminck to be his personal speechwriter. Selling more than 30,000 copies during its first month, the novel was optioned by legendary filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who saw the opportunity to turn it into his very first flat-out entry into the comedy genre.
With perfect casting that includes Thierry Lhermitte as the Minister and Raphaël Personnaz as speechwriter Arthur, Tavernier’s film version, titled The French Minister, is a fast paced, witty comedy that makes a perfect use of the director’s extensive cinematic knowledge. The film is full of witty dialogue and touching performances (especially from Niels Arestrup as Claude Maupas a character inspired by real-life Chief of Staff Pierre Vimont). Not a stranger to film festivals, Tavernier screened his film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, followed by a successful commercial release in France.

On the occasion of the film’s North American debut, we talked to the director, who revealed how the shoot sometimes emulated scenes from the novel, spoke about the film’s New York-ness and even shared why Quentin Tarantino might be the best thing to happen to him at film festivals…

Recently we’ve seen politics approached by the media in a much more lighthearted manner. I’m thinking particularly the shows of Armando Iannucci which chose to focus on the madcap quality of bureaucracy. Did any of these shows serve as inspiration for the screenplay and the timing?

I’ve not seen many shows, I saw In the Loop three times and loved it! Loved the acting, loved the writing…maybe sometimes I didn’t like the speed, the last fifteen minutes were exhausting. Sometimes I’d like to see shots that last longer, moments when you can take little breaks, but other than that I thought the film was hilarious.

You wrote the film with the authors of the graphic novel…

Working with them was my decision and I loved working with them.

In the movie there’s this lovely scene where we see Arthur and Claude working late at night on a speech and they just start making jokes. Was this similar at all to the writing process for your film?

That was very close to what we were doing, but it’s a scene which is in the comic book, which by the way will be released in the USA under the name Weapon of Mass Diplomacy...which is a wonderful title. But it’s true, we were laughing so much during the making of the film that it has to be said that working on this screenplay was a happy experience from the beginning. All the films I’ve done before, the preparation and the shooting were all a dream, but finding the people to finance the film was a nightmare, but not this time. For example shooting The Princess of Montpensier was a holiday compared to what I suffered with the bankers (laughs)...so in this film everything went so well that I began having doubts, “things can’t go so smoothly, there must be a problem somewhere”. I had people who believed in the film, who liked the film, I was working with a completely new crew which I loved, so it was a great experience.

There is also that sense that even though we might find this funny, these are real issues faced by people who run the world. How do you find the right balance to prevent you from turning The French Minister into a drama?

At the end it’s not scary because all their decisions are very good, they make great decisions. The final speech, which is the real life speech (given by Villepin in 2003) which was vilified and distorted horribly in the United States, telling people not to participate in the Iraq war was very wise because there were no weapons of mass destruction and that war created terrorism. It gave Iran a lot of power and turned out to be a big mistake, so France’s position was proven right. Working in politics is crazy, you have a lot of pressure, you have people making contradictory demands and we show that…but I don’t think it’s scary. The behavior is scary but not their actions. I think what the film says that the only thing that counts in politics is the result and at the end the result is positive. If you look at England, you’d have Tony Blair and his cabinet, and while none of them looked crazy, they lied, they perjured themselves, they invented things which did not exist and in the end they killed several thousand British citizens. Politics are very complex and can’t be judged only by the behavior. In my film, the behavior of the Minister is sometimes demented but it also shows that politics are a combination of someone who has a vision and people doing the real work. Everyone connected with the French government found the film to be very true and very positive, even they know their behavior is completely mad.

Since you mentioned using the original speech, was this something that came from the graphic novel?

Yes, from the second volume. It’s also a very beautiful speech, it speaks about peace. If you read the whole speech it said everything that would come to happen and it has a kind of approach with a great scope and vision. It’s a speech with culture, with a past. France had been attacked for being an old country and this speech is saying “yes, we’re an old country, but we have seen wars, we survived through the Occupation, we’ve seen many dramas, we know darkness and we speak with the knowledge of all that so you better listen”. It said “we are the sacred keepers”, urging people in the United Nations to fight for peace.

This is a film very worried with structure and the fact that you deny us from seeing the Minister give an actual speech until the very last scene made me wonder if you had borrowed this structure from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator which similarly saves the best for last?

No. We had to save the last speech till the end, because we see the other speeches fail. We have a character say this wonderful line, “it was like Frankenstein trying to speak to Snow White’s seven dwarves”, and it goes beyond Mel Brooks (laughs). You needed to see that all the mistakes of the Minister are in the previous speeches, all these contradictions, this megalomania makes him miss the target many times and it’s because of all these problems that he succeeds in the end. He becomes more restrained.

When you were doing press for The Princess of Montpensier you mentioned you were a feminist, which made me think of how the female characters in The French Minister have very little scenes but are also some of the most fascinating characters. Did you choose to develop Marina (Anaïs Demoustier) and Valerie (Julie Gayet) more than what was originally thought?

I changed the female characters. French politics are made by men, French politicians have problems accepting women, they can be very macho and they behave atrociously in the Congress, making noises when women speak. I didn’t add any characters but I decided to make Valerie not only a bitch, because she is a bitch, but I wanted to show that she is professional and very brave. I put more emphasis on the secretaries, they became more important than in the book. I love film women and I hope to make films which give women the right attitude.

More than the title cards, it was in scenes with Niels Arestrup where I got a sense that the entire film was slowing down and asking us to take a break and meditate on everything that had happened so far. It was like a Brechtian song/device. Was this the intention behind his scenes?

We needed to have that, because in In the Loop for example everything is the same speed. I knew we needed to slow down for a few seconds. It’s like when you’re driving fast for an hour, you don’t even notice you’ve been driving at 120 miles per hour. Many films are mistaking rhythm and speed. They are confounding rhythm and precipitation. Michael Powell said in his memoirs that David O. Selznick wanted to be great, but he was only big. He aspired to greatness but had only bigness. You have films that try to be fast in order to engage their audiences, but their rhythm feels imposed, while in classics like His Girl Friday the rhythm is coming organically. In my film I decided to choose scenes with Niels as the moments not to precipitate, I only asked him to move fast during one scene and said “this will be your Clint Eastwood moment”...

How easy/difficult was it to tone down Niels Arestrup to play this quiet part? It’s nothing like what we usually see him do.

When he received the César [for Best Supporting Actor], he praised me for that, for giving him the opportunity to do the opposite of what he’d been playing for 40 years and to have the courage to think that he could be funny.

You’ve won awards from pretty much every festival in the world. Do you still get excited when you take your movies to new festivals?

I like the reactions I get from other directors who like my films and talk to me about them. It’s actually more exciting than any award. I love it when suddenly Tarantino tells me that he loves Death Watch... that, to me, is more important than any award.

New York City was a big part of making the film…

Yes, because we wrote it here. I remember it was cold and it was during Irene and I remember trees had fallen over cars and we having lunch in a restaurant and rain was coming through the roof (laughs).

So it must be especially exciting to have people in New York finally see the film…

Yes, especially because people at the United Nations demanded to see the film, so we have a screening there. I loved working in New York. We had lots of fun.  I remember it was difficult shooting inside a hotel where we did a scene, because there were a lot of mirrors so it was impossible for the DP and I was demanding a long tracking shot. So he found a way by using a very small lamp created by a French DP, so he hid it in the ceiling and lit the scene in a way that no one else could notice the lamp. He did a brilliant job of something which was normally impossible. And I love to ask impossible things from my crew, because they always come up with brilliant solutions.

The French Minister is now playing in select theaters.

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