Classy Film: Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)
Some childhood dreams are hard to let go. For me, it’s the determination I had, aged 12 to 18, to do my higher education at Sciences Po Paris, then the ENA, followed by an obviously brilliant career as a diplomat for the Quai d’Orsay, home to the French ministry of Foreign Affairs. Neither four years at the LSE or four years of project management for a luxury British brand have deleted it.
Having followed a different path, I satisfy the child in me by watching and reading endless material on these three French institutions. Quai d’Orsay, a comic book turned feature film about an ENA-graduate working as the Foreign Affairs minister’s speechwriter, ticks all my boxes. Add to that a healthy dose of humorous criticism of the French administration, first class acting and directing, and you get a film I just couldn’t not like.
The original comic book is based on former Foreign Affairs minister and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s time at the Quai d’Orsay and builds up to his Security Council speech against US intervention in Iraq. It is inspired by co-writer Abel Lanzac’s (real name Antonin Baudry) time as cultural and economic advisor to Villepin. Written by the comic book authors Christophe Blain and Lanzac, the movie closely followed this scenario.
Quai d’Orsay opens with Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) trying to work out what to wear to his interview with Foreign Affairs minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte). He settles on a pair of white chinos and some square, dirty shoes, a choice that has the civil servants he bumps into laughing and makes him feel out of place. Although very much an administration insider through his ENA training alone, Vlaminck is an outsider and the viewer’s eyes through much of the movie because of his novelty to the ministry, a status exemplified by his wardrobe faux pas.
Lesson learnt, on his first day, Vlaminck switches to a dark suit, though not a matching one. It earns him some advice from one of his more careered colleagues: try wearing a matching suit but avoid black, especially with a black tie and square shoes or risk looking like a bodyguard.
Vlaminck’s dress sense is a recurrent theme of the first half of Quai d’Orsay, as he tries to find his footing as a speechwriter, to figure out what Taillard de Worms expects and learn to navigate the system. He gets a schooling in office politics when Valérie Dumontheil (Julie Gayet, who, when the film was released, was known for her acting work, rather than as François Hollande’s mistress), the Quai’s Africa specialist, compliments him on his first speech, hits on him and makes fun of his poorly-ironed collar and his polished shoes, only to backstab him in a team meeting ran by the real Quai boss, Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup, awarded a César for this role).
Dumontheil’s character is in itself a criticism of the administration. She is the only high-level woman in the team. All the other women featured are secretaries, or Vlaminck’s girlfriend. The Quai is a testosterone-charged universe, with the expected ribaldry. After Dumontheil publicly destroys Vlaminck’s speech with her criticism, one of their colleagues explains him that this is the Quai’s way of fucking, before illustrating it with a saucy song. Considering there is a gratuitous shot of Dumontheil in her underwear half-way through the movie, director Bertrand Tavernier might have missed the sexist angle of his story.
Criticism of the administration, for instance how the Quai d’Orsay doesn’t have Internet access (I’m not sure if this is still true), is only a small part of the scenario. At the heart of the parody is the minister, rather than his civil servants. Taillard de Worms’ personality oscillates between the ridicule of a five minute speech on the importance of getting the right yellow highlighter - because he needs to highlight the best sentences in everything he reads, especially Heraclitus’ Fragments, his trusted-to-the-point-of-absurdity text - and the eventual greatness of his UN Security Council speech.
Heraclitus and the highlighter obsession are not the only two jokes from the original comic book that Tavernier translated well on screen. Another of his coups is Taillard de Worms’ way of walking into rooms: he sends all loose sheets flying and the secretaries sitting on piles of paper to prevent disaster the second they hear him coming.
Between these funny moments and the insider look I crave to the Quai d’Orsay, this was never the film which was going to quash my childhood aspirations. Instead, it got me googling madly for documentaries on l’ENA.
Quai d’Orsay will show at the Ciné Lumière, followed by a Q&A with Raphaël Personnaz, as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinéma festival on 28 April 2014.