Director Bertrand Tavernier (center) with Thierry Lhermitte and Raphael Personnaz on the set of The French Minister, a comedy about a dervish of a diplomat trying to head off a war.
French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has done some serious work. In The Clockmaker, a man's adult son commits an act of terrorism. In 'Round Midnight, an aging jazz musician struggles with addictions. And Sunday in the Country is about a man visiting his aging father.
But Tavernier's new film, The French Minister, is a comedy, inspired by both real life and old movies. It's based on a graphic novel the director read in a single night, in the first week the book was published.
"I saw the possibility of comedy with serious overtones," Tavernier explains. "And it was, at the same time, a mixing of crazy characters and events. And in a way that everything was believable."
One reason the story felt believable: Author Christophe Blain was essentially chronicling his own experience as a speechwriter for former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Blain worked with Tavernier on the screenplay, which pictures his not-completely-fictional minister as a lunatic who runs in and out of rooms like a windstorm, barking incomprehensible orders.
The film marks a new direction for Tavernier, says Scott Foundas, chief critic for Variety.
"We're not talking about a filmmaker here who has a reputation for making light comedies — or really comedies of any kind," Foundas says. "If you look at Bertrand's films, particularly the ones that are well-known outside of France, they include dramas or films on serious historical subjects, like Capitain Conan and Life and Nothing More; films on jazz like 'Round Midnight; a film about adoption in Cambodia, Holy Lola; A Sunday in the Country, which is one of his best-known films. All dramas or films on serious historical subjects. And this is a real departure."
Tavernier had to figure out how to film a graphic novel. What he wanted to do required a different approach from the drawings in the book.
"When you see the minister moving, you see him multiplying himself — like if he had several hands," the filmmaker says. "He's like a walking sirocco; he's a whirlwind. I mean, all the paper is flying. And he never seems to remark that. For me, that's that's one of the best descriptions of some politicians; they never seem to imagine the effect of their actions. For me it's more than just a running gag: It's saying a lot about the behavior of some people."
And that's the serious underside to The French Minister — despite the character's seeming thoughtlessness, he delivers a powerful speech to the U.N Security Council. Tavernier changed the names and disguised the countries, but it's easy to see that the actual speech was one the real de Villepin delivered to the U.N. in 2003, arguing against the invasion of Iraq. The filmmaker says the speech still carries meaning.
"Out of that crazy state of mind, that crazy thing he creates, suddenly comes out one of the most brilliant speeches of the last 30 years," he says. "A speech where now, you could take it word for word about Syria."
Tavernier's other source material may seem unlikely: American screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Variety's Foundas points out that Tavernier, like American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, is a serious film historian, so he knows those comedies also addressed subjects that matter.
"So many of these classic Hollywood comedies did a a very serious subtext to them," Foundas explains. "That gives the movie [a] weight that a lot of today's slapstick and more sketch-oriented comedies don't really have to them.
"So just as His Girl Friday deals with capital punishment, and To Be or Not to Be and The Great Dictator deal with the rise of fascism in Europe, you do have in Bertrand's film the backdrop of this surrogate Iraq war," the critic continues. "And you do have the sense that as much as these people are warring with each other internally in the office, they are all ultimately trying to do something that's for the best of France and even for the best of the entire world. And that does give the movie a kind of human dimension and a dramatic dimension that I think is very rare today in movie comedy."
His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a pair of journalists covering a corrupt and chaotic city, is often described as having the fastest dialogue in the history of the movies. Tavernier says he admires it because it goes right to the paradox he wanted to show in his own film — that counterintuitively, chaos and zaniness are good ways to explore actuality.
That movie, and Tavernier's, prove that in politics, as in screwball comedy, madness can lead to sanity.