Currently in New York through March 19, French film director Bertrand Tavernier’s agenda is fully booked, including a series of conferences, master classes and screenings.
Tavernier kicked off his visit to the Big Apple with a screening of his latest film, The French Minister (that was released under the title Quai d’Orsay in France), which was nominated for Best Adaptation at France’s national film awards, the Césars. He was accompanied by Cultural Advisor Antonin Baudry, writer of the comic book of the same name on which the film was based.
“I skimmed through the first volume of the comic book when it was published and I loved it, I thought it was hilarious. I had wanted to do a film on politics for a very long time, but I hadn’t come across the right subject matter. When Quai d’Orsay came out, I immediately wanted to obtain the rights,” says an enthusiastic Mr. Tavernier. Baudry recalls meeting with the director in an Indian restaurant in New York. “When he told me about his project, I just couldn’t say no; you simply cannot turn down a film opportunity with Bertrand Tavernier!” he says.
The film is indeed funny thanks to its talented cast who go far beyond caricatures of the politicians they play. Thierry Lhermitte appears in the role of Alexandre Taillard de Worms, a Minister of Foreign Affairs clearly inspired by Dominique de Villepin. Niels Arestrup plays Claude Maupas’s Chief of Staff, and Raphaël Personnaz is cast as Arthur, an intern at ENA, France’s National School of Administration and a breeding ground for French politicians.
But though there is plenty of comedy in it, the film is far from being a satire. The story was inspired by Baudry’s experience during the time he spent at the Ministry of Foreign Affaires, between 2002 – 2004, and for Bertrand Tavernier, it was important to preserve the truth of that experience in the film. The French Minister recounts the lives of senior officials as they happen, openly, with all its rants and moments of grace.
“I never wanted the film to be cynical or condescending with regard to the subject matter. I am fond of all the characters in the film: Maupas’s Chief of Staff is a fascinating man; he works 18 hours a day and does not squander public funds. Keeping this in mind, one cannot, nor does one want to be disrespectful.”
It is a pleasure to watch Thierry Lhermitte in the role of the minister, who incessantly seeks to insert his love of literature into his speeches. Of course, we can only feel compassion for Arthur, who arrives in the midst of all this diplomatic effervescence, marked by the Ludménistan crisis, which is a clear reference to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.
It is precisely in all this upheaval that Tavernier found the subject matter for his film. The film’s final speech recalls that of Dominique de Villepin at the UN against the Iraq War. “This speech arises amidst all the chaos, it’s extraordinary. Nothing ever since has been so powerful in French politics,” says Tavernier.
One might think that exposing the work of senior diplomats was risky for Antonin Baudry, but the author insists this is not the case. “Everyone at the French Foreign ministry loves the comic book. In fact, they thought it captured their lives quite well.” It has also been reported that Dominique de Villepin liked it as well.
The film was successfully released in France. During its first week in theaters, it sold over 370,000 tickets. It also made a good showing in Canada, to the surprise of Tavernier himself. The French Minister is set to be released in the US on March 21, but Tavernier declines to speculate on how it will be received. “It’s not my job to know how my film will do here. I make films, I’m not a fortune-teller. But of course I hope audiences will like it.”