Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 08, 2012 5:12 am 
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Previously reviewed in Paris, Oct. 27, 2011.

The inside/outside of politics and government

The Minister is a fabulously exciting and smart French film about politics, though its politics are so deeply French that aspect of the film may partly be inaccessible to American viewers, despite the otherwise rich human content, the outsider-newcomer role the minister plays and the stresses and shocks he endures. It's obvious for the French to compare it to The Conquest, the rich and well-produced, but conventional, biopic about Sarkozy's rise to power that came out earlier in the same year in France. And it emerges at once that The Minister is the more probing and original film. The Conquest is only about externals. The Minister is by design about both how government works internally, its inner workings, how decisions are really made and carried out -- on the one hand -- and -- on the other hand -- from the protagonist's point of view, how it feels to be new in a high position of government (ministerial level). The latter, in France, I'm feeling, is more visible and sensitive responsibility than in the US, because a government minister is out there in the public eye nowadays than their American counterparts currently are. But besides The Conquest the French also compared The Minister to The Ides of March with Clooney and Gosling, because it came out in Paris in the same week. The Ides of March is a good but not great political thriller whose focus on an election limits its scope to a miniature version of what The Conquest is about. It's superficial. And its stars are in all ways more flashy, and have less depth in these roles than Olivier Gourmet and Michel Blanc. The French critics liked The Ides of March better than the merely workmanlike and unoriginal The Conquest, but they saved their raves for The Minister.

The French title of The Miister is more expressive of the director Pierre Schöller's purpose in making his film. It's L'Exercice de l'État, literally "the exercise of the state," which alludes to carrying out the actual inner workings of national government -- how and by whom decisions get made and carried out. This is why in the film the ministry PPS (principal private secretary) Gilles, played by Michel Blanc, is just as important a character as the Bertrand Saint-Jean, the Transport Minister played by Olivier Gourmet. Both are powerful and selfless actors, Olivier Gourmet of an energy and conviction that are unmatched, Blanc projecting competence, integrity and class. Because politics is conducted by insiders and political aristocrats, it's important that Gilles (Blanc) is a political aristocrat and insider. When, in a totally insiders' decision, Woessner (Didier Bezace), another old-timer and insider, is chosen to figurehead as a PPS the new project to privatize the railway stations, it's Gilles, an old friend of Woessner, who has him over in the evening for a meal of eggas and bacon that he cooks himself and serves with a bottle of the best white burgundy.

But the film isn't just an affairs of state story. It centers on the issue of privitization of stations, but it begins with a terrible bus accident up in the mountains. This shows how tense and demanding the Minister's work is. It also shows how media and image are as important as action. It is obvious though the minister must face the dead children and the grieving parents, it's his public statements and who picks them up and where and how they spin hem that count most on this evening. Before that, in the first image of the film, comes the naked lady who crawls inside the crocodile's mouth, the nightmare of the minister, which shows the way his work pursues him even in his dreams.

But most of all the film is given a unique shape by the theme of the unpreditable in another strain. This comes into play through the "chaumeur inconnu," the "unknown unemployed man," Martin Kuypers (played by an unknown non-actor, Sylvain Deblé). He is the guy hired for a month so the minister's regular driver can go on leave to be with his newborn baby. Perhaps because he needs to connect with somebody -- his phone list has flashed on the screen and he's said he has 1500 contacts but no friend -- Satint-Jean bonds with Kuypers, going to his trailer home and getting drunk with him and his outspoken wife Pauline (Zabou Breitman).

A while later there comes the shocking accident where Kuypers crashes the official car and it turns over multiple times with a horrifying sound, with Saint-Jean's publicity secretary with him, and Kuypers is thrown from the car and dies, and Saint-Jean is with him when his soul leaves his body. The event changes Saint-Jean forever. His survival is a miracle, and strengthens him with the public. Even this is a matter of public relations, because a speech is written about Kuypers, and then Pauline requests a low profile, and the speech must be jettisoned. When Saint-Jean speaks the speech to himself in a whispier at the memorial serivce were the whole main government is present, it underlines the minister's personal, private relationship with this faceless man. It's a brilliant scene underlining the inner and outer aspects of the narrative.

Pierre Schöller isn't a new director but this film is so different from his last one, the 2008 Versailles, that he seems reborn with this long-gestating fim.

The Minister /L'Exercise de l'Étât, 115 mins.debuted at Cannes May 19, 2011, and opened in Paris October 26, 2011 and I reviewed it then (see link above). It was screened for this new review as part of the 2012 Museum of Modern Art-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films series .
©Chris Knipp 2012

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