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The Minister (L’Exercise de l’Etat): Cannes 2011 Review

The Minister (L’Exercise de l’Etat)
Jerome Prebois

The Bottom Line

Overloaded political intrigue marked by a solid turn from Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet.


Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)


Olivier Gourmet, Michel Blanc, Zabou Breitman, Laurent Stocker, Sylvain Deblé, Eric Naggar, Arly Jover, Anne Azoulay


Pierre Schoeller

Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet gives a solid performance in director-screenwriter Pierre Schoeller's film.

CANNES -- At once intriguing and dense, disjointed and overwrought, The Minister (L’Exercise de l’Etat) reps a challenging second feature from writer-director Pierre Schoeller (Versailles), and one that doesn’t quite get all its ducks in a row. Anchored by Olivier Gourmet’s sharp performance as a French transports minister dealing with a multitude of sticky issues and stress-inducing scenarios, this episodic political yarn will tally up votes in Francophone territories, with a solid TV showing.

“Politics is a wound that never heals,” declares Bertrand Saint-Jean (Gourmet), a fast-acting, forever on the move policy machine who never lets down his guard – or his Blackberry – as he’s shuffled from one five-minute meeting to another. With the help of his PR maven, Pauline (Zabou Breitman), and top-notch private secretary, Gilles (Michel Blanc), Saint-Jean maneuvers his way through the complex inner workings of the French bureaucracy, sticking to his guns when he can, but capitulating when the powers-that-be decide otherwise.

Kicking off with a surreal dream sequence that shows a naked woman crawling into the mouth of a crocodile (the symbolism is rather obvious given what comes after), the story then shifts to a brutal bus accident site where Saint-Jean gives a pro-forma speech, before he heads back Paris to deal with a plethora of issues affecting his Ministry of Transportation. Among the many plot lines – which are tough to follow given how quickly the shifting narrative jumps between them – Saint-Jean’s trickiest beast is a controversial privatization of France’s train stations, a plan he’s fundamentally opposed to despite the government’s favoring of the reform.

Dardenne Bros. (credited as producers) regular Gourmet offers up his usual frenzied, sweatbucket antics, adding nuance to a character who exists more as a reaction to surrounding forces than as a distinct personality. As he faces an army of cabinet enemies and tries to keep his office afloat, Saint-Jean barely has time to stop and think – or see his family, beyond a run-and-gun sexual encounter with his wife (Arly Jover) – and the same could be said for Schoeller’s vision, which dishes out tons of ideas without ever holding onto one long enough to provide substantial dramatic pull.

As a trusty (but not too trusty) right-hand man, Blanc (The Girl on the Train) provides the film’s most solid supporting role, though his relationship with Saint-Jean is often too ambiguous to pin down, turning their third-act conflict into yet another subplot to be dealt with.

Gripping widescreen shooting by ace DP Julien Hirsch (Unforgivable) balances out the multitude of locations and settings, while a dissonant score by Philippe Schoeller (the director’s brother) is meant to reflect Saint-Jean’s frenetic state of mind.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Doc & Film International
Production companies: Archipel 35, Les Films du Fleuve, France 3 Cinema, RTBF (Télévision Belge), Belgacom
Cast: Olivier Gourmet, Michel Blanc, Zabou Breitman, Laurent Stocker, Sylvain Deblé, Eric Naggar, Arly Jover, Anne Azoulay
Director-screenwriter: Pierre Schoeller
Producers: Denis Freyd, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Jean Marc Tran Tan Ba
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Philippe Schoeller
No rating, 113 minutes