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Foreign Policy, With A Pugnacious French Twist

Arthur (Raphael Personnaz) is a new hire at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte) is the eccentric foreign minister.
Courtesy of Sundance Selects
Arthur (Raphael Personnaz) is a new hire at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte) is the eccentric foreign minister.

A frisky tour of the Gallic equivalent of the U.S. State Department, The French Minister boasts robust pacing, screwball-comedy banter and an exuberant central performance. For most American viewers, though, the movie could use footnotes to go with its subtitles.

Derived from a graphic novel, the movie observes the travails of Arthur Vlaminck (Raphael Personnaz), a recent graduate of the country's top public-administration college. He's hired as a speechwriter during an oblique job interview with the foreign minister, in which the young man's qualifications are never mentioned.

The new guy, and the story, are soon spinning around his manic boss, Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte). Taillard is apparently well-read, with literary enthusiasms that include Heraclitus. (One of that pre-Socratic philosopher's gnomic fragments introduces each of the movie's chapters.) Yet the minister barely looks at Arthur's speeches, intuiting their flaws with some sort of diplomat's ESP.

Confused and frustrated, Arthur turns to Taillard's aides for clarification. Crusty, pragmatic chief of staff Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup) offers good advice; others are less reliable. Particularly duplicitous is the office's only high-ranking woman, Valerie Dumontheil. (In an accidental masterstroke of casting, she's played by Julie Gayet, whose alleged affair with real-life French President François Hollande went public shortly after the movie was released in France.)

Taillard is a whirl of verbal bluster and physical slapstick. He delivers such empty maxims as "Urgency is the backbone of action," and dismisses Americans because they "don't know who invented the concept of zero."

He harangues his staff on the proper handling of the hundreds of yellow highlighter pens that fill one of his desk drawers. His every appearance is announced by a slammed door and a cloudburst of dislodged papers. (An end note reassures viewers that no doors were harmed during the filming.)

Lhermitte's minister is great fun, but he so upstages the other characters that some scenes misfire. When an eminent writer (Jane Birkin) arrives for lunch, for instance, Taillard's grand words about literature overwhelm the joke: that the novelist is there with a troublesome political agenda, not an innocuous artistic one.

In the first comedy of a 40-year career that includes A Sunday in the Country and The Princess of Montpensier, director and co-writer Bertrand Tavernier tries to do too much. Subplots involving Arthur's live-in girlfriend (Anais Demoustier) are underdeveloped, and trips to Berlin and New York distract from the insular office politics. And it's hard to gauge how seriously to take the story's principal crisis, a potential American invasion of "Ludmenistan."

French viewers must have seen the movie differently. They would have known that Arthur is an autobiographical character — created by Antonin Baudry, who co-scripted the film — and that his boss is a barely veiled version of Dominique de Villepin, who was foreign minister in 2003. That means Ludmenistan is Iraq.

In fact, the anti-invasion remarks Taillard delivers at the U.N. near the end of the film come from the real speech Villepin gave there. His eloquent address, along with a few other final-act successes, unexpectedly reveal that the minister is not merely an egotistical blowhard. He's an effective egotistical blowhard.

Without more context, this doesn't come across. The use of aliases for Iraq and an African country that may be the Democratic Republic of the Congo creates the impression that the movie is about a world of make-believe lands like Wes Anderson's Zubrowka. When an actual U.S. president's voice is finally heard, the curtain of farce is ripped open. It's as if Hitler had suddenly marched into the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for reeldc.com, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.