Oui, Minister

FOREIGN LEGION: Thierry Lhermitte stars as French foreign minister Alexandre Taillard de Warms in satire Quai d'Orsay.
FOREIGN LEGION: Thierry Lhermitte stars as French foreign minister Alexandre Taillard de Warms in satire Quai d'Orsay.

French satire Quai d'Orsay looks at the inner workings of the French foreign affairs ministry and there's plenty to laugh about.

When the door opens and actor Thierry Lhermitte walks into the hotel room I half expect him to be followed by a mini tornado of flying sheets of paper.

In French political satire Quai d'Orsay Lhermitte plays French foreign minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms and one of several running jokes in the film, directed by veteran Bertrand Tavernier, is that whenever he enters or exits a room, up fly sheets of paper. Sometimes it seems to happen even in places where there shouldn't be any paper.

The film, based on a graphic novel about the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Quai d'Orsay in central Paris, is like a Gallic take on British television political satires Yes, Minister and The Thick of It. It's a strong cast, including veteran actor Niels Arestrup and Julie Gayet, recently revealed to be the mistress of French president Francois Hollande.

But Lhermitte has the plum role as the minister, inspired by real-life French politician Dominque de Villepin, who criticised the United States invasion of Iraq. Lhermitte's character has a manic energy and moves and talks in an out-of-kilter manner around people which reminds me of British comedian Steve Coogan.

It's also the biggest screen role of Lhermitte's career, after years of supporting roles in French cinema, largely for his comedic talent. For the past six years he's also worked in theatre.

Lhermitte says he jumped at the chance to be involved. "I was very happy because I had read the comic book the year before, when it came out. It was by chance. It didn't cross my mind that I would play the lead. The character is so fantastic to play and so well written."

The script was written by the graphic novel's creators Abel Lanzac (a pen name for author Antonin Baudry, who worked as a speech writer for de Villepin) and illustrator Christophe Blain. "The adaptation is really brilliant, because coming from a comic book, which is rather [like a] chronicle [with many stories] to one story with a drama, that is the most difficult thing to do," says Lhermitte.

He also feels Tavernier was able to capture the style of the graphic novel in a live action film.

"They did it very sincerely. It was exactly the same work from the comic book to the screen."

Lhermitte says earlier in his career he was known for over-the- top "wild comedy". But in recent years he had extended his range, partly with his recent move into theatre. He says this meant that Tavernier was worried that the actor would be reluctant to return to his earlier comedic style.

Lhermitte didn't need any convincing. "When it is as well written as this I go for it."

Lhermitte was also impressed by Tavernier's openness to suggestions on how to play the French minister. "He is a nice and clever man so he takes whatever is good for his movie. He even kept on asking on the set - we were shooting at the actual Quai d'Orsay - to the people there, 'do we do this like this? Do we do that like that'? Just grabbing any interesting details he could add to the movie. But I didn't give that many suggestions because it is so well written. Honestly, in the text I didn't change a comma. I stuck to the lines all the time."

A very important scene in the film takes place at the United Nations in New York. Lhermitte was struck that the scene was actually shot at the United Nations. "They could have made a set, but shooting over there - that was impressive. The American production team had done a wonderful job hiring extras that were from the nationalities that they had to play."

One scene with Lhermitte was also shot in Senegal, standing in for the Ivory Coast.

Some critics have noted that Quai d'Orsay is a change of gear for Tavernier, best known for sweeping historical epics including Life and Nothing More and Captain Conan. But like a lot of French directors he's a big fan of Hollywood movies. He's written books on American film and enjoys classic Hollywood comedies. He's also made American movies. His 2009 film In the Electric Mist was shot in southern Louisiana with Tommy Lee Jones - although Tavernier was unhappy with how it was edited for the American market.

Tavernier says some of the attractions of Quai d'Orsay was its depiction of the "people working in crazy conditions" and living in a closed universe.

"I saw something great in that angle. For the minister, time does not exist and personal lives do not exist. He is not interested in any way. At the end of the film, when he's washing his hands in the toilet, he suddenly discovers that his closest collaborator had a fiance. He has been with him for one year and a half and knows nothing about him. He doesn't care. The only thing he cares about is the work.

"That, I thought, was incredibly funny, but very true. I knew that I had to avoid any kind of cynicism. That was too easy. I had to have empathy for the character [of the minister]. The great comedies are the comedies where you have real empathy for the characters. You care for the characters as much as if in a dramatic film."

Tavernier liked the fact that before making the film he knew nothing about the inner workings of French government and the diplomatic circuit.

"It's always been in every film I've done - it is a desire to discover a world I did not know. It stimulates my excitement. I mean, I knew nothing about southern Louisiana before doing In the Electric Mist. "But the French cut, not the American cut. The French cut I think is very, very good."


Quai d'Orsay screens at Wellington's Embassy today, 2pm and Friday, 8.30pm as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.

The Dominion Post