Movie Interviews
6:50 am
Sat March 22, 2014

Bertrand Tavernier, Playing Geopolitics For Laughs

Originally published on Sat March 22, 2014 10:18 am

French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has done some serious work. In The Clockmaker, a man's adult son commits an act of terrorism. In 'Round Midnight, an aging jazz musician struggles with addictions. And Sunday in the Country is about a man visiting his aging father.

But Tavernier's new film, The French Minister, is a comedy, inspired by both real life and old movies. It's based on a graphic novel the director read in a single night, in the first week the book was published.

"I saw the possibility of comedy with serious overtones," Tavernier explains. "And it was, at the same time, a mixing of crazy characters and events. And in a way that everything was believable."

One reason the story felt believable: Author Christophe Blain was essentially chronicling his own experience as a speechwriter for former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Blain worked with Tavernier on the screenplay, which pictures his not-completely-fictional minister as a lunatic who runs in and out of rooms like a windstorm, barking incomprehensible orders.

The film marks a new direction for Tavernier, says Scott Foundas, chief critic for Variety.

"We're not talking about a filmmaker here who has a reputation for making light comedies — or really comedies of any kind," Foundas says. "If you look at Bertrand's films, particularly the ones that are well-known outside of France, they include dramas or films on serious historical subjects, like Capitain Conan and Life and Nothing More; films on jazz like 'Round Midnight; a film about adoption in Cambodia, Holy Lola; A Sunday in the Country, which is one of his best-known films. All dramas or films on serious historical subjects. And this is a real departure."

Tavernier had to figure out how to film a graphic novel. What he wanted to do required a different approach from the drawings in the book.

"When you see the minister moving, you see him multiplying himself — like if he had several hands," the filmmaker says. "He's like a walking sirocco; he's a whirlwind. I mean, all the paper is flying. And he never seems to remark that. For me, that's that's one of the best descriptions of some politicians; they never seem to imagine the effect of their actions. For me it's more than just a running gag: It's saying a lot about the behavior of some people."

And that's the serious underside to The French Minister -- despite the character's seeming thoughtlessness, he delivers a powerful speech to the U.N Security Council. Tavernier changed the names and disguised the countries, but it's easy to see that the actual speech was one the real de Villepin delivered to the U.N. in 2003, arguing against the invasion of Iraq. The filmmaker says the speech still carries meaning.

"Out of that crazy state of mind, that crazy thing he creates, suddenly comes out one of the most brilliant speeches of the last 30 years," he says. "A speech where now, you could take it word for word about Syria."

Tavernier's other source material may seem unlikely: American screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Variety's Foundas points out that Tavernier, like American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, is a serious film historian, so he knows those comedies also addressed subjects that matter.

"So many of these classic Hollywood comedies did a a very serious subtext to them," Foundas explains. "That gives the movie [a] weight that a lot of today's slapstick and more sketch-oriented comedies don't really have to them.

"So just as His Girl Friday deals with capital punishment, and To Be or Not to Be and The Great Dictator deal with the rise of fascism in Europe, you do have in Bertrand's film the backdrop of this surrogate Iraq war," the critic continues. "And you do have the sense that as much as these people are warring with each other internally in the office, they are all ultimately trying to do something that's for the best of France and even for the best of the entire world. And that does give the movie a kind of human dimension and a dramatic dimension that I think is very rare today in movie comedy."

His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a pair of journalists covering a corrupt and chaotic city, is often described as having the fastest dialogue in the history of the movies. Tavernier says he admires it because it goes right to the paradox he wanted to show in his own film — that counterintuitively, chaos and zaniness are good ways to explore actuality.

That movie, and Tavernier's, prove that in politics, as in screwball comedy, madness can lead to sanity.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Going to hear now about the works of a French filmmaker, Bertrand Tavernier, which often deals with serious themes. In his film "The Clockmaker," a man's adult son commits an act of terrorism. The movie "Around Midnight" is the story of an aging jazz musician who struggles with addiction. But his new film, "The French Minister," is, mon dieu, a comedy. It's inspired by real life and old movies. Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC gives us this look.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: "The French Minister" comes from a graphic novel which director Bernard Tavernier read in a single night the first week the book was published.

BERNARD TAVERNIER: I saw the possibility of making a comedy but which had serious undertones. And it was, at the same time, a mixing of crazy characters and events in a way that everything was believable.

MOVSHOVITZ: One reason the story's believable is that the book's author, Christophe Blain, chronicled his own experience as a speechwriter for former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Christophe Blain worked with Tavernier on the screenplay, which pictures his not-completely-fictional minister as a lunatic who runs in and out of rooms like a windstorm, barking incomprehensible orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FRENCH MINISTER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: This marks a new direction for Tavernier, says Scott Foundas, chief critic for Variety.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: It's a very unusual film to be directed by Bertrand Tavernier because we're not talking about a filmmaker here who has a reputation for making light comedies or really comedies of any kind. If you look at Bertrand's films, particularly the ones that are well-known outside of France, they include dramas or films on serious historical subjects. This is a real departure.

MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier had to figure out how to film a graphic novel. What he wanted to do required a different approach from the drawings in the book.

TAVERNIER: When you see the minister moving, you see him multiplying himself, like if he had several hands. So, I tried to find something else, which is every time that the minister comes he's like a walking sirocco; he's a whirlwind. I mean, all the paper is flying. And he never seems to remark that. For me, that's one of the best description of some politician; we never seem to imagine the effect of their action. For me it's more than just a running gag: It's saying a lot about the behavior of some people.

MOVSHOVITZ: And that's the serious underside to "The French Minister." Despite the character's seeming thoughtlessness, he delivers a powerful speech to the United Nations Security Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FRENCH MINISTER")

THIERRY LHERMITTE: (as Alexandre) (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier changed the names and disguised the countries, but it's easy to see that the speech was actually one Diminique de Villepin delivered to the U.N. in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq.

DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN: (Through Translator) In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The honor is responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace.

MOVSHOVITZ: The filmmaker says the speech still carries meaning.

TAVERNIER: Suddenly comes out one of the most brilliant speech in the last 30 years. A speech where now you could take that word for word about Syria.

MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier's other source material may seem unlikely. He drew on American comedies of the 1930s and '40s. Variety's Scott Foundas points out that Tavernier, like American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, is a serious film historian and knows those comedies also addressed subjects that matter.

FOUNDAS: So many of these classic Hollywood comedies did a very serious subtext to them. You know, that gives the movie a weight that a lot of today's sort of slapstick and more sketch-oriented comedies don't really have to them. So, you know, just as "His Girl Friday" deals with capital punishment, and "To Be or Not to Be" and "The Great Dictator" deal with the rise of fascism in Europe, you do have in Bertrand's film the backdrop of this surrogate Iraq war. And that does give the movie a kind of dramatic dimension that I think is very rare today in a movie comedy.

MOVSHOVITZ: The film that Bertrand Tavernier most had in mind was the 1940 "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a pair of journalists covering a chaotic and corrupt city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HIS GIRL FRIDAY")

CARY GRANT: (as Walter) Hildy, this is war. You can't desert me now.

ROSALIND RUSSELL: (as Hildy) Oh, Walter. You get off that trapeze. You got your story right over there on the desk. Go on. Smear it all over the front page. Gerald Williams captured by the Morning Post.

MOVSHOVITZ: "His Girl Friday" is often described as having the fastest dialogue in the history of the movies. Tavernier says he admires it because it goes right to the paradox he wanted to show in his own film - that chaos and zaniness are good ways to explore actuality.

TAVERNIER: I wanted to do a film incredibly fast and I had that film in mind. Because "His Girl Friday" is a farce. It's funny, but yet, the description of the journalists are very real. And the film is talking about death penalty.

MOVSHOVITZ: Bertrand Tavernier's own film is about politics and how, as in screwball comedy, madness can lead to sanity. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.