Quai d'Orsay: Toronto Review

quai d'orsay TIFF Still - H 2013

quai d'orsay TIFF Still - H 2013

A snappy, sharp-witted, graphic novel-inspired satire on the doings at the French Foreign Ministry.

The Bertrand Tavernier-helmed political satire stars Thierry Lhermitte and Raphael Personnaz.

Shifting gears after grappling with 16th-century religious wars on his last project, The Princess of Montpensier, veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier has made one of his most buoyant films in Quai d’Orsay, a fast-paced political satire set within the chaotic confines of the titular offices of the French Foreign Ministry. Based on a popular graphic novel and led by a whirlwind lead performance by veteran French star Thierry Lhermitte, this energetic send-up of crazy doings in high places should go over well with French and probably other European audiences, but even the art house public in North America might have trouble thoroughly connecting with this insidery romp.

Politics have at least obliquely informed many of Tavernier’s films over the years, but here the director dives right into the center of the beehive to observe self-important figures dealing with mighty issues but behaving essentially as if they were characters in a 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy.

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The newcomer observing it all firsthand is proper young academic Arthur Vlaminck (Raphael Personnaz, a slightly older Zac Efron type), put in charge of “language” on the 12-person staff of Foreign Minister Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Lhermitte). Laboring over speeches and receiving little guidance, Arthur can barely get a word in edgewise during his brief moments with the busy minister, who might glance for three seconds at one of Arthur’s texts, then toss it aside and offer criticisms that more often than not have nothing to do with what Arthur wrote. With essentially no new guidance at all, it’s back to the drawing board.

Arrogant and full of himself, to be sure, Lhermitte’s Taillard is a charismatic dynamo, handsome, athletic, intelligent, always on the move and forever dispensing observations that may not be, but sometimes are, relevant to matters at hand. The man is a born pontificator, someone who can endlessly expound upon any subject, seemingly at the flip of a switch. Even when he lunches with the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Jane Birkin in a cameo), his guest can scarcely get a word in edgewise.

Taillard may be the front man and main attraction at the circus otherwise known as the Foreign Ministry, but keeping things in a modicum of order is chief of staff Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup), a rumpled old political pro with a useful seen-it-all attitude. Maupas advises Arthur on how to tactfully deal with Taillard, whereas the neophyte’s teacher wife has nothing much to offer when he gets home; the domestic scenes with the couple are uneventful time-wasters.

Dotted with quotations from the melancholic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the script by Tavernier, Christophe Blain and graphic novel writer Abel Lanzac invents some nutty foreign policy crises, including a French-provoked incident in a place called Ludmenistan that seems drawn straight from a Preston Sturges film. However, as time goes by, it becomes clear that the action is set during the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and that the big speech Arthur has been toiling over is a major one that Taillard will soon deliver at the United Nations.

At just past the 90-minute mark, the action shifts to New York, where chaos reigns until the last second when, as with a theater performance preceded by panicked rehearsals, decorum and dignity preside when the curtain goes up and Taillard delivers an address that proves a model of eloquent compression. The speech is, in fact, the very one French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin famously delivered in 2003 in opposition to U.S. war plans against Iraq. In the context of the film, the speech suggests that there may have been more to Taillard’s methods than met the eye at the time, providing an entertaining argument on behalf of the notion that from chaos comes order.

Quai d’Orsay zips along at a good clip and benefits from the gruffly benevolent gravity of Arestrup, which offsets the machine-gun pace set by Lhermitte. Amusingly, with all the space devoted to impressive public rooms, the elegant old Parisian offices are far too small to accommodate the staff and equipment required by modern electronics-oriented politics.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival

Opens: November 13 (France) (Pathe)  

Production: Pathe, Little Bear

Cast: Thierry Lhermitte, Raphael Personnaz, Niels Arestrup, Josephine de La Baume, Thomas Chabrol, Anais Demoustier, Julie Gayet, Jane Birkin

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Screenwriters: Bertrand Tavernier, Christophe Blain, Abel Lanzac, based on the graphic novel by Abel Lanzac

Producers: Frederic Bourboulon, Jerome Seydoux, Isabelle Kostic Crosley

Director of photography: Jerome Almeras

Production designer: Sibilla Patrizi

Costume designer: Caroline de Vivaise

Editor: Guy Lecorne

Music: Philippe Sarde

113 minutes