An Iraq War Satire with a French Twist

The French aren't famous for mocking their own vanities, which is why the new movie The French Minister—retitled from Quai D'Orsay, the metonymic equivalent of "Foggy Bottom"—would probably have Charles de Gaulle rolling in his formidable grave. Thierry Lhermitte plays a foppish, dizzyingly self-regarding Foreign Minister named Alexandre Taillard de Vorms—a blatant parody of Jacques Chirac's foppish, dizzyingly self-regarding top diplomat, Dominique de Villepin, best known on this side of the Atlantic for his 2003 U.N. speech denouncing George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.  Call him the father of "Freedom Fries," since that absurd renaming on Capitol Hill menus was pretty much the major consequence of his stand.

Antonin Baudry, author of the graphic novel The French Minister is based on, was Villepin's speechwriter at the time, so we're presumably getting a fair amount of inside dish.  Yet the movie's tone isn't acrid or score-settling; it's merry and bemused. The real, bittersweet comedy is that Alexandre's speech about the crisis in "Loudesmistan"—his ultimate showcase on the international stage—won't actually have much impact on events.  Even Armando Iannuci's aggressively sardonic In The Loop, which also dealt with the run-up to a fictionalized Iraq war, didn't make the Brits' role quite so forlorn.

The director, Bertrand Tavernier, has been around forever, but he's in a frisky mood here. Until the climactic New York trip for Alexandre's U.N. appearance, much of the movie is bustling and anecdotal, introducing Baudry's stand-in, Arthur Vlaminck (Raphael Personnaz) on the day he's hired and following him into a maze of petty office politics and bewilderingly vaporous priorities. Mostly, Arthur's treated as if he doesn't have a good reason to be on hand—but does anyone else, really, from Julie Gayet as a sharp-elbowed expert on Africa who's into the bureaucratic equivalent of S & M to Alexandre himself? The contrast between the magniloquent decor of the Foreign Minister's chambers and the clutter and penny-ante gamesmanship behind the scenes is such a good visual joke that Tavernier hardly needs to stress it.

Alexandre Taillard de Vorms himself is a first-rate comic creation, not least because he's blithely unaware that his subordinates—Arthur included—often can't make head or tail of his demands on them.  Convinced that he's the soul of Cartesian lucidity, he doesn't grasp that he thinks of his own brains as a fashion statement.  He's got elegant prescriptions, high-toned allusions and crisp-sounding formulas for every occasion—and yet, whenever his baffled speechwriter tries to boil the boss's rapid-fire marching orders down to their practical essence, there's nothing left but steam.  

Naturally, Alexandre also considers himself a literary man, that being virtually mandatory for French diplomats. One of the movie's drollest scenes features Jane Birkin—who's a long way from her days as Serge Gainsbourg's inamorata—as a Nobel Prize-winning novelist he's invited to lunch. She wants to talk foreign policy, but he wants to purr in a quasi-collegial way about art, and you get one guess which of them doesn't make any headway. The man's been in love with his own voice for so long that we're hearing the contented sound of a successful marriage.

Lhermitte is often blissfully funny, but his performance isn't the most memorable one in The French Minister.  As Claude Maupas, Alexandre's long-suffering chief of staff, Niels Arestrup, who was so chillingly baleful as the Corsican crime boss in Jacques Audillard's A Prophet a few years ago, is a weary-eyed, unfazable joy.  In a just world, Arestrup would be as well known as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Bill Murray put together, but that doesn't mean you should daydream about Murray playing Claude in the American remake.  At the time Villepin was Foreign Minister, our Secretary of State was Colin Powell. A comedy that built up to his speech to the U.N. in 2003, with its phony evidence of Saddam Hussein's WMD quest, might be more mordant than Stateside moviegoers could stand.