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Friday, February 20, 2015

The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay)

The University of Louisville is currently in the midst of its annual French Film Festival. Unfortunately, two screenings of the film I've been most wanting to see, The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay), were canceled last night because of bad weather. The entire University was closed for extreme cold. Yesterday's 5 pm screening was supposed to be followed by a discussion with French professor Matthieu Dalle, and I'm hoping that will occur today at the 2 pm screening.

Here's the film's synopsis from IMDB:
Alexandre Taillard de Vorms is tall and impressive, a man with style, attractive to women. He also happens to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the land of enlightenment: France. With his silver mane and tanned, athletic body, he stalks the world stage, from the floor of the United Nations in New York to the powder keg of Oubanga. There, he calls on the powerful and invokes the mighty to bring peace, to calm the trigger-happy, and to cement his aura of Nobel Peace Prize winner-in-waiting. Alexandre Taillard de Vorms is a force to be reckoned with, waging his own war backed up by the holy trinity of diplomatic concepts: legitimacy, lucidity and efficacy. He takes on American neo-cons, corrupt Russians and money-grabbing Chinese. Perhaps the world doesn't deserve France's magnanimousness, but his art would be wasted if just restricted to home turf. Enter the young Arthur Vlaminck, graduate of the elite National School of Administration, who is hired as head of "language" at the foreign ministry. In other words, he is to write the minister's speeches. But he also has to learn to deal with the sensibilities of the boss and his entourage, and find his way between the private secretary and the special advisers who stalk the corridors of the Quai d'Orsay - the ministry's home - where stress, ambition and dirty dealing are the daily currency. But just as he thinks he can influence the fate of the world, everything seems threatened by the inertia of the technocrats.
Update February 22: The film reminded me in structure of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Basically, the film devoted about half of the narrative to the farcical politics of the French Foreign Ministry and half to the speechwriter’s domestic situation (where important political issues were also revealed in a personal manner). Both films generally ended happily for the ordinary people featured in the stories. No actor in the film played two roles, but the speechwriter literally provided the words for the Foreign Minister's closing address (and in previous speeches).

The parallel to Chaplin's classic film are not perfect. The Foreign Minister character was played for laughs throughout the film, but he was not a power-mad dictator. He was imagined as a slightly foolish political bureaucrat with intellectual interests. Indeed, the Minister's basic three talking points from the first meeting with the speechwriter were reflected in the final speech. I think the filmmaker could be suggesting that these key principles were so obvious and basic that even a fool could identify them right away -- the need for responsibility, unity, and efficacy. Somehow, the neocons and Bush managed to miss these elemental truths as they planned the Iraq war.

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