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

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

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