Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)

September 4, 2014 at 6:05 am | Posted in Film Review | Leave a comment
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Another day, another film; this time is was Quai d’Orsay. For those of you familiar with Yes Minister, The thick of it, The Hollow Men, and their American clones, I don’t really have to say much. Even in France, the same mix of bureaucratic and political behind the scenes goings-on go on.

However, Quai d’Orsay is more subtle; maybe because the Minister’s chief-of-staff is not a shouty person and he sets the tone for the Minister’s office – and the film. Claude (Niels Arestrup) is quiet and soft-spoken – not very french! The Minister, Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte) is much more sterotypical french – shouts, demonstrative, etc; or is it because he is a politician? Claude, like all harden public servants, and good parents, is endlessly patient, and speaks slowly and calmly. Claude does all the real work; like: divert a burning ship to avoid a war, using two telephones. The Minister supplies ideas, directions and principles “responsibility, legitimacy, unity”.

The film follows Arthur (Raphaël Personnaz), the Minister’s new speech writer, over the course of a few months. Arthur is new to government and at first he just does not know how to fit in: from wearing the wrong clothes to actually believing what people say. It is all a bit of a steep learning curve, but eventually, he is wearing black shoes, coloured ties and dark suits, like everyone else – except the body guards who do wear black ties. Arthur’s first day is a shock: the Ministry building is like a palace, with its uniformed messengers (in combo morning suits), and everyone is elegantly dressed (this is France). Arthur has no office (or a diplomatic passport) – something to do with him being a contractor – he perches for awhile at the end of a secretary’s desk.

The Minister has an important speech at the UN; all against the background of the looming Second Iraq War (though a mythical country is used to avoid naming Iraq). Poor Arthur ends up re-drafting speeches over and over again, as the Minister changes his mind (or has it changed for him by senior advisors – who remind him of his commitments, the President’s commitments, and France’s commitments), or has to work in ‘helpful’ suggestions from the Minister’s intelligentsia friends.

The Minister is a powerful figure: every time he walks through the Ministry, he is preceded by a sonic boom – the result of the floor to celling doors and the energy with which he opens and closes them – that sends papers flying. The Minister has vision. The Minister is guided by a book (on philosophy). The Minister maybe an idiot, but he has his heart in the right place (procures a residency permit for the parents of one Arthur’s girlfriend’s students), and does not lack for physical courage (he confronts a mob in a former French colony).

There are subtleties (constant references to Belgium and Germany) and non-subtleties (constant refernces to America) throughout the film. Whenever a delegation travels outside of France, they are accompanied by a cryptographic technician – to encode/decode any cables – but who’s services are never required! The english translation of the title – Quai d’Orsay – may be calculated insult to France! Quai d’Orsay is a street in Paris; the whole complex is occupied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, a more appropriate translation might be “The Foreign Ministry” or “The Foreign Minister”.

The film is not laugh out loud – LOL – funny; it is funny, because the only other response is to cry: that a powerful member of the non-aligned west (France has nuclear weapons) is seemingly guided by someone like Taillard. In reality, it is guided by his sleepless chief-of-staff and Pol Pot (the cat that lives in the Ministry and is inherited by successive chief-of-staff’s). There are some amazing moments. A must see for students of government.

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