Legendary flm director Bertrand Tavernier has completely changed register for his latest film, moving from the 16th century court of Charles IX of his last outing, La Princesse de Montpensier, to the corridors of the French foreign ministry with Quai d’Orsay based on the cult comic strip book of the same name. The book was co-produced by Antonin Baudry (writing under the pen name, Abel Lanzac), a young diplomat who worked as a speechwriter for former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin. It has already enjoyed a huge critical success in France and this year took the prestigious best book prize at the annual comic strip festival in Angouleme. Quai d’Orsay draws on Baudry’s experience of working with Villepin and his close knit circle of advisers and friends to depict a Kafkaesque world of confusing complexity deftly brought to the screen by Tavernier. Despite a career spanning nearly forty years, this is Tavernier’s first venture into pure comedy. He has produced a film running at full tilt which weaves farce, burlesque, and fantasy into a tight, funny package that casts a sharp eye over the political machine without sliding into political satire.
Raphael Personnaz is Arthur Vlaminck, a recent graduate from the highly prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, which produces most of France’s top politicians from both sides of the political fence. Although he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a young diplomat with his shabby clothes and gauche manner, he is hired by the minister Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry L’Hermite) to work at the foreign ministry drafting speeches for the minister himself. His lack of previous political experience makes him an easy target for the power struggles and back-stabbing of the minister’s support network of advisers and back room staff. And it’s not long before he’s spinning between the minister, his chief of staff (Niels Arestrup) and a cabal of hard-nosed technocrats. Gradually Arthur learns the skills he needs to survive and find his place in the cut-throat world of high-level international diplomacy.
Translating what works on the written page to the big screen is a difficult task and Tavernier has plumped for the rhythm of the original comic strip, with one scene following another in quick succession. A couple of devices come straight from the comic strip format itself. Each time Vorms enters a room, for example, he is preceded by a gust of wind, a visual ‘woosh’, that sends books and papers flying and his language at times descends into childish invention. But Vorms is no fool. He is passionate about his role as foreign minister and is an exacting, if at times, slightly hysterical boss. L’Hermitte is perfectly cast as the academic, haughty minister who has the heart of a poet but not the talent. He shows a skill for comedy rarely exploited in recent years. One of the film’s funniest scenes is a lecture by the minister to his staff on the importance of using a fluorescent pen to highlight a text delivered by l’Hermitte with just the right touch of insanity. Arestrup, as the faithful, world weary eminence grise, is the perfect counterpoint to the high-maintenance foreign minister and his Buddha-like presence often acts as a brake to stop the action from spinning out of control.
The film ends with a speech delivered by Vorms/Villepin to the UN back in 2003, the only speech ever to have received a standing ovation from the other members of the organisation. It’s a moving finale to a whirlwind, behind-the-scenes tour of French diplomacy. Although some of the scenes seem to stretch credibility, Villepin is said to have seen the film and reported that it doesn’t go far enough! In French cinémas: 6/11/2013
DVD subtitled in English