SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Going to hear now about the works of a French filmmaker, Bertrand Tavernier, which often deals with serious themes. In his film "The Clockmaker," a man's adult son commits an act of terrorism. The movie "Around Midnight" is the story of an aging jazz musician who struggles with addiction. But his new film, "The French Minister," is, mon dieu, a comedy. It's inspired by real life and old movies. Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC gives us this look.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: "The French Minister" comes from a graphic novel which director Bernard Tavernier read in a single night the first week the book was published.
BERNARD TAVERNIER: I saw the possibility of making a comedy but which had serious undertones. And it was, at the same time, a mixing of crazy characters and events in a way that everything was believable.
MOVSHOVITZ: One reason the story's believable is that the book's author, Christophe Blain, chronicled his own experience as a speechwriter for former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Christophe 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.
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MOVSHOVITZ: This marks a new direction for Tavernier, says Scott Foundas, chief critic for Variety.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: It's a very unusual film to be directed by Bertrand Tavernier because we're not talking about a filmmaker here who has a reputation for making light comedies or really comedies of any kind. 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. This is a real departure.
MOVSHOVITZ: 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.
TAVERNIER: When you see the minister moving, you see him multiplying himself, like if he had several hands. So, I tried to find something else, which is every time that the minister comes 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 one of the best description of some politician; we never seem to imagine the effect of their action. For me it's more than just a running gag: It's saying a lot about the behavior of some people.
MOVSHOVITZ: And that's the serious underside to "The French Minister." Despite the character's seeming thoughtlessness, he delivers a powerful speech to the United Nations Security Council.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FRENCH MINISTER")
MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier changed the names and disguised the countries, but it's easy to see that the speech was actually one Diminique de Villepin delivered to the U.N. in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq.
DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN: (Through Translator) In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The honor is responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace.
MOVSHOVITZ: The filmmaker says the speech still carries meaning.
TAVERNIER: Suddenly comes out one of the most brilliant speech in the last 30 years. A speech where now you could take that word for word about Syria.
MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier's other source material may seem unlikely. He drew on American comedies of the 1930s and '40s. Variety's Scott Foundas points out that Tavernier, like American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, is a serious film historian and knows those comedies also addressed subjects that matter.
FOUNDAS: So many of these classic Hollywood comedies did a very serious subtext to them. You know, that gives the movie a weight that a lot of today's sort of slapstick and more sketch-oriented comedies don't really have to them. So, you know, 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. And that does give the movie a kind of dramatic dimension that I think is very rare today in a movie comedy.
MOVSHOVITZ: The film that Bertrand Tavernier most had in mind was the 1940 "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a pair of journalists covering a chaotic and corrupt city.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HIS GIRL FRIDAY")
MOVSHOVITZ: "His Girl Friday" 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 chaos and zaniness are good ways to explore actuality.
TAVERNIER: I wanted to do a film incredibly fast and I had that film in mind. Because "His Girl Friday" is a farce. It's funny, but yet, the description of the journalists are very real. And the film is talking about death penalty.
MOVSHOVITZ: Bertrand Tavernier's own film is about politics and how, as in screwball comedy, madness can lead to sanity. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.
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