Thursday, September 4, 2014

Streaming tip: Bertrand Tavernier's sweet and light-footed surprise, THE FRENCH MINISTER

Looking over the oeuvre of famed French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, you'd be hard pressed to come across a comedy. His newest film, THE FRENCH MINISTER (Quai d'Orsay), which came and went in theaters all too briefly last season, if not quite a full-fledged comedy, is possibly the most endearing and light-footed feature this storied and serious filmmaker has so far given us. There is often humor to be found in Tavernier's films, but here there's a wealth of it, beginning with the title performance by gifted French actor Thierry Lhermitte.

Basically, Bertrand's movie is a political satire (the filmmaker is shown at right), but it is not a particularly barbed one. The humor is almost entirely built into the characterizations on display, rather than arriving out of the situations. With actors as good as the fine ensemble cast rounded up for this movie, that humor is firmly rooted and bubbles up believably as we get to know this odd assortment of drone-like satellites, ever revolving around their sun of a minister -- who is, unfortunately, pretty much a son of a bitch.

As played by M. Lhermitte (shown below, right), this Minister (of Foreign Affairs) is possibly the most vain and narcissistic fellow in politics on either side of the Atlantic.

And yet... There is something just a tad endearing about the guy's vanity and self-esteem. We watch and learn of all this through the eyes and mind of a young speech-writer named Arthur, who has come to join, a bit reluctantly, the staff that serves this minister. Played by one of France's hottest young actors, Raphaël Personnaz (above, left), Arthur is smart but naive, and pretty much a lamb to some of the lions in this political den.

These would include the likes of Valérie, played by Julie Gayet (above, right), an actress whose connection with France's current President, François Holland, makes her role and performance all that much more succulent.

Also on staff is the quiet, near-sleepy old fellow, Claude, played by one of France's foremost actors Niels Arestrup, above, who nearly steals the movie by never raising his voice amidst the whirlwind -- literally and figuratively -- caused constantly by his boss.

The remainder of the ensemble is well-cast and up to snuff, but a word must be said for both Jane Birkin -- who plays a Nobel Prize-winning author whom our Minister insists on having to lunch -- and Anaïs Demoustier (above, right), who plays Arthus' live-in girlfriend. Ms Birkin always proves a delight; here she is once again, this time with a bit of a barbed edge, while Ms Demoustier is intelligent sweetness personified.

The movie never settles for standard comedic tricks. It has something else -- a little more serious -- in mind. By the end, you will have questioned your immediate and previous assumptions and maybe even rethought slightly your opinion of politicians and their actual worth. As with all of Tavernier's works, this one is a movie worth seeing and mulling over in retrospect.

From IFC Films, in French with English subtitles and running a very-easy-to-watch 113 minutes, The French Minister can be streamed now via Netflix and elsewhere and is also available on DVD.

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