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New film takes satirical aim at French ex-PM Villepin

Based on a popular graphic novel, Bertrand Tavernier’s new film, “Quai d’Orsay”, is a farce centering on France's former foreign and prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who symbolised France's opposition to the Iraq War, and his speechwriter.


To the French, he embodied diplomacy at its most elegant and erudite.

To the Americans and English, he was more of a nuisance, a haughty French aristocrat who wagged his finger disapprovingly as the US and UK lurched into war in Iraq.

Now, a new film from veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier portrays Dominique de Villepin, the sleekly handsome, silver-haired French politician best known for his tenure as foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, as all of those things and more: a larger-than-life statesman with a fondness for good wine, Greek philosophy, yellow highlighters, and, above all, the sound of his own voice.

Based on a graphic novel by Antonin Baudry and Christophe Blain, “Quai d’Orsay” (which refers to the location of the French Foreign Ministry in Paris) centres on Arthur (Raphael Personnaz), an idealistic young academic who comes to work for the film’s Villepin stand-in, Foreign Minister Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry Lhermitte). Arthur is hired to be “head of language” -- “speechwriter” presumably being too crass a term for the French -- and soon finds himself toiling over texts that his boss glances at and discards while dispensing only the most cryptic feedback.

The foreign minister wears Prada?

Indeed, Taillard is a nightmare to work for, and the film often plays less like political satire than a masculinised, Gallic version of “The Devil Wears Prada”, with a male ingénue subject to the whims of an imperious and impossible boss.

Raphael Personnaz in "Quai d'Orsay" (Pathé)
Raphael Personnaz in "Quai d'Orsay" (Pathé)

Broadly drawn as it is, parts of “Quai d’Orsay” have the feel of lived experience. Baudry worked as an advisor to Villepin, and the scenes of Taillard castigating Arthur and bellowing mottos like “Responsibility, Unity, Efficiency!” are among the most vivid in the film.

Taillard may have panache -- and he looks killer in a tailored suit – but he’s both fastidious and maddeningly vague (a deadly combination), as well as an insufferable know-it-all. In one sequence, he lunches with a Nobel Prize-winning poet (played by Jane Birkin) whom he claims to admire, but doesn’t let her get a word in edgewise. In a desperate act of damage control, an aide passes him a napkin with a scrawled message: “You need to let her speak”.

A veteran director tries his hand at screwball

Tavernier is somewhat of a chameleon in French cinema. His last film, “The Princess of Montpensier”, was a torpid 16th century romance. But before that he made movies like the nimble and moving “A Sunday in the Country”, which examined an aging artist’s relationships with his son and daughter, and the vibrantly directed “It All Starts Today”, about a kindergarten headmaster.

“Quai d’Orsay” is somewhat of a departure in that it is essentially a screwball comedy, with snappy dialogue, swift editing and flourishes of cartoonish farce; Taillard’s entrance into a room, and into the frame, is routinely preceded by the sound of Godzilla-like footsteps and a whoosh of wind that sends papers scattering in the air.

There’s also a colorful gallery of supporting characters, including a long-suffering chief of staff (the wonderful Niels Arestrup) and a comely Africa specialist (Julie Gayet) who cozies up to Arthur behind closed doors, but throws him under the bus at meetings.

Much of “Quai d’Orsay” is enjoyably brisk, Tavernier moving his camera and actors around the ministry’s cramped offices and corridors with speed and grace.

But at 113 minutes, the film feels overlong and frequently recycles gags that are not quite as amusing the third time around. Tavernier and his screenwriters might have livened things up by occasionally piercing the knowing, affectionate tone with some sharper jabs at the stuffy world of French politics.

Meanwhile, the appealing Personnaz is saddled with a rather blandly conceived character, and Anaïs Demoustier, as his schoolteacher girlfriend, is given little to do but rub his shoulders and offer fashion advice in perfunctory domestic scenes.

Lhermitte, all blustery charm and constant motion, is the main draw here, and the film’s energy recedes when he’s off screen.

A familiar speech

“Quai d’Orsay” recovers momentum in its final act, when the ministry turns its attention to fictional country Lousdemistan -- clearly meant to stand in for Iraq -- and Arthur struggles to draft an address that both articulates France’s opposition to a US military intervention and satisfies Taillard’s craving for the global spotlight.

At the end of the film, Taillard travels to New York to deliver the speech before the UN Security Council, and many international politics junkies will recognise the very words Villepin spoke in 2003 as he warned the US that invading Iraq would be a grave mistake.

It’s a fine climax, stirring but pleasingly understated, in which a caricature becomes -- if only for a moment – the dignified voice of reason that would, tragically, go unheeded.

“Quai d’Orsay” hits French screens on November 6.

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