The Intrusion of French Politics

in 64th Cannes Film Festival

by Laurent Aknin

The Minister (L’exercice de l’état) is typical of this year’s Cannes Festival trend: the intrusion of French politics. This political aspect can take the shape of a benign joke (La Conquête, by Xavier Durringer) or of a truly experimental work such as Pater (by Alain Cavalier), or even of a casual display, such as the current French President’s wife in Woody Allen’s movie Midnight In Paris. Among all these perceptions, Pierre Schoeller’s movie stands out thanks to a strength, a depth and a style rarely seen before in French film, or even in international films dealing with such a topic.

The Minister for Transport, Bertrand Saint-Jean, is woken in the middle of the night by his personal private secretary. A bus has crashed into a ravine. He goes there, he has no choice. Thus begins the odyssey of a State official through an increasingly complex and hostile world. Speed, power struggles, chaos, economic crisis… In the frantic chain of events, one emergency replaces another.

The main strength of the film comes from the brilliant idea to take a minister as a main character; a minister, therefore a man hooked into the very heart of the power team, but responsible for a little-known ministry: the Minister for Transport (according to a quick poll among the French journalists in Cannes, nearly none of them knew of the current one!).

Unconnected to any well-known or charismatic personality, the film hence allows a dive into the psychological side of a man inhabited by a craving for power. In order to reach his aim, he will gradually give up his ideals and decide to stand for a law he was totally against. In between, we witness a car crash, the breaking of his friendship with his private secretary… This is also the opportunity to benefit from a great performance by Olivier Gourmet (a Belgian actor discovered by the Dardenne Brothers, also co-producers of the film) and by Michel Blanc.

Schoeller builds up his movie like a genuine thriller, leading his plot at a breathtaking pace. The audience is literally engulfed into a stifling world. The director avoids the traps of caricature as well as those of a pseudo–documentary: his characters are men of flesh, blood, fear and sweat. He has interspersed the accurate depiction of places of power with truly surreal scenes (the minister learns about his promotion while sitting on the toilet), and nightmarish ones: the opening scene — the minister’s dream — is truly hallucinatory.

The Minister then goes beyond the national context to reach a universal level, offering a meditation on the lust for power. Pierre Schoeller’s Versailles (2008) was previously shown in Cannes and this new film does not only confirm the promise of his first work but establishes Scholler as a major auteur in French cinema.