L’Exercice de l’État

November 6, 2011By Nick HammondFilm
Olivier Goumet as the minister and Zabou Breitman as his communications director.

All the talk in Paris the last couple of weeks has been of the new movie L’Exercice de l’État, which dissects French political life and gives an unflinching insight into the corridors of power. Most of the major newspapers and magazines, including the notoriously difficult-to-please Télérama, have given the film five-star ratings. And the public seems as enamored as the press. When I went to it last weekend, the queues were winding up the street, and my companion and I were lucky to get seats together in the front row of a large cinema.

The movie, directed and written by Pierre Schoeller, revolves around the (fictional) French Minister of Transport Bertrand Saint-Jean (played by Olivier Goumet), his director of communication (Zabou Breitman) and his cabinet secretary (Michel Blanc). Saint-Jean struggles to stay on track politically as rapidly evolving events (a fatal school coach crash) and ministerial pronouncements on the privatization of railway stations, to which he is initially passionately opposed, threaten to derail his career.

The film begins with an eye-catching sequence featuring a naked woman crawling into the jaws of a huge crocodile, which turns out to be Saint-Jean’s dream. Yes, folks, we are about to behold the heady mix of power and eroticism that is the political world.

For anyone familiar with the television shows The West Wing or The Thick of It (and its cinematic offshoot, In the Loop), which respectively examine the inner workings of American and British political life, L’Exercice de l’État will seem a somewhat pale imitation, lacking the biting humor of the television shows and trying to make up for lacunae in the script by playing extremely loud music.

For a French audience, however, unaware of these shows and used to overly respectful treatment of its political leaders in the press, L’Exercice de l’État must seem cutting-edge. Many scenes are very well executed, especially those in which Michel Blanc appears, and the way the dim-witted minister is prompted by his aides as he shifts toward embracing privatization to save his political career makes for suitably uncomfortable viewing. Much of the acting is hammy, though, especially by the secondary characters, and too many scenes are ludicrously improbable, not least the drunken evening the minister spends in a mobile home with his newly hired driver and the driver’s wife instead of joining his own wife for her birthday.

This episode was clearly concocted to give weight to a later, equally improbable, event involving the driver and the minister (I am being circumspect here to avoid any plot spoiling), and it points to deficiencies in the script, for which Schoeller should take the blame.

Rarely has 1 hour and 53 minutes seemed longer. Thank goodness for the charms of the restaurant Le Vin des Pyrénées, which awaited my companion and me afterward!


Reader Margo Berdeshevsky writes: “In three words: gross, pretentious and boring. Sigh.”


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