6 July 2015

Bertrand Tavernier’s 'Quai d’Orsay'

Bertrand Tavernier, born in 1941, is one of France’s most long-standing film directors, probably best known outside France for Round Midnight (1986). His most recent film, Quai d’Orsay (2013), was not released in the UK* and had a limited US distribution under the title The French Minister. (The French foreign affairs ministry is located in Paris at the Quai d’Orsay and is often referred to by its location.)

Tavernier’s film begins with a young énarque**, Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz), being escorted through the grandeur of the Quai (similar to that of the Elysée revealed in Patrick Rotman’s documentary, Le Pouvoir) to an interview for a post as a personal speechwriter for Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry Lhermitte), the minister. Getting the job turns out to be the start of Vlaminck’s problems as de Vorms, moving from one intellectual flight of fancy to another, endlessly rejects his speeches and urges their improvement with references to poetry and philosophy. He also encounters rivalry and intrigue among the minister’s other advisers, including the vampish and ambitious adviser on Africa, played by one Julie Gayet (see below). The only clear heads are those of de Vorms’ directeur de cabinet, Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup), unflappable with years of experience of crisis management, and Arthur’s partner, Marina (Anaïs Demoustier) a sensible teacher. After excursions to Berlin and francophone Africa, de Vorms goes to the UN in New York to deliver a grandiloquent speech articulating his country’s foreign policy.

Personnaz and Gayet
Anyone interested in France and its ruling elite (or has had to write speeches for a boss who only knows what he doesn't want to say) is bound to find the film very amusing, and played to great comic effect by Lhermitte, more subtly by Arestrup. But the background to Quai d’Orsay is informative, too, the film having been adapted from two bandes dessinées (BD, comic books) of the same name by Christophe Blain and Abel Lanzac. Blain was the illustrator, but the writer, “Abel Lanzac”, turned out to be a pseudonym adopted by Antonin Baudry who had worked as a speechwriter for Dominique de Villepin, foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, the period leading up to the Iraq war. When the first BD came out in 2010, de Villepin’s response was surprising but probably wise in the circumstances:
I found the drawings very telling, very strong and the dialogues some of the best descriptions I have read, heard or seen of life inside a ministry.
Unusually, both BDs are available in English translation under the title Weapons of Mass Diplomacy - a typical scene below:

The film captures the look of the drawings in the BD remarkably well, right up to de Vorms’ UN speech, and its writing credits are shared by Blain, Lanzac and Tavernier. I suspect that it was Lanzac/Baudry’s intention to satirise the Quai as an institution rather than de Villepin’s speech which is highly regarded by many in France, although the man clearly has his idiosyncrasies.

Sudhir Hazareesingh in his new book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, begins the Introduction with a section, Le Style Français, which he sees as epitomised by that speech:
In February 2003, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin delivered a speech at a Security Council debate at the United Nations in New York on whether to sanction the use of force against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Speaking in the name of an 'old country' and an 'old continent' that had experienced 'wars, occupations and barbarity', Villepin declared - prophetically - that a war against the Iraqi regime would have catastrophic consequences for the region's stability: 'The option of war may appear a priori the most effective. But let us not forget that, after winning the war, peace has to be built.' Stressing that 'the use of force [was] not justified,' he ended by expressing his faith in the capacity of the international community to build a more harmonious world: ‘We are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The heavy responsibility and the immense honour which is ours should lead us to give priority to peaceful disarmament.' 
Villepin's speech was welcomed across the world, typifying as it did a shared collective aspiration for a different kind of politics, grounded in humanism rather than force. And yet in his vision, and the way in which it was elaborated, there was also something very recognizably, unquestionably French: the seductive masculinity and rhetorical verve, which drew on the nation's finest traditions of public oratory; the appeal to reason and logic, with the issue under discussion being neatly framed into binary oppositions (conflict and harmony; self-interest and the common good; morality and power politics); the sense of articulating an age-old wisdom resting on centuries of often painful historical experience; and a confident optimism, underpinned by a belief in France's cultural superiority. Indeed, although it did not do so explicitly - and was all the more compelling for it - the speech threw down the gauntlet to George Bush's America and its complaisant ally, Great Britain, and held up the actions of these nations to the court of international public opinion as threats to peace and stability. This silent demonization of the dastardly Anglo-Saxons' was the climax of Villepin's oratorical artistry along with his characteristically French claim to be speaking in the name of universal principles - all the more sincerely so, one felt, because these happened to coincide exactly with French national interests.
I should say that Hazareesingh’s book, as one might expect coming from a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, is examining French intellectuality at the highest levels, those of literature, philosophy, the Académie and the grandes écoles. Cinema is only touched on briefly and certainly not BDs!

* However, the DVD is on sale in France in 2015 for about 10 euros (or less as part of a multi-buy) and comes with English subtitles.

** A graduate of the ÉNA, École nationale d'administration, one of France’s elite grandes écoles.

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