CAHIERS DU CINEMA, OR, PARDON THE FRENCH

by Hugh Fitzgerald (Feb. 2007) 

"L'homme d'Amérique, d'aplomb sur le sol, cheveux au vent, n'est pas le prisonnier d'une solitude océanique. Il sent l'Europe avec force, la France avec la ferveur d'une antique amitié. Nul n'est plus fidèle aux grands principes de la moralité humaine, nul n'est plus révolté par l'injustice, forme absolue du désordre."

                                        --  Henri Focillon, "Les Etats-Unis et l'Allemagne"

                                            May 1940, published in Témoignage pour la France 

                                            (New York, 1945)

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Preface

 

 "Les provinciaux et les sots sont toujours prêts à se fâcher…"

                                                                  La Bruyère

 

Film-makers on both sides of the Atlantic have been turning increasingly to classic films of the past as sources of inspiration. The results are not quite sequels, nor quite remakes, but combine elements of both. As these films are for the most part, like their originals, products of French and American film studios, the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma decided to ask an American who has been following this trend closely to review some recent examples for the annual English-language version of Cahiers. He has kindly agreed to do so, but requests that readers pardon the incidental French. Of course we have no problem with that; we hope our American audience will feel the same.

 

We decided to devote such a large amount of space in Cahiers to this review-article, because we have become convinced that this fashion is not fleeting, but destined to endure. There can be little doubt that other examples will suggest themselves, as time goes by, and the shadows deepen.

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LUI, ou RIDICULE

 

 

 “You grow with criticism, you are diminished with praise.”

  Dominique de Villepin

    

 

        The French film Ridicule came out to great acclaim in 1996. Loosely based on material taken from Les Historiettes of Tallemant des Réaux, and the Mémoires of the Duc de Saint-Simon, the movie unfolds at the Court of Louix XIV in the late seventeenth century. The plot centers on the cruelties of life at that Court, where ability to turn a phrase is what counts; failure can lead to “ridicule” and worse. The film had everything: powdered wigs, amorous intrigue, beautiful furniture (Louis Quatorze, bien sûr), subdued lighting with flickering candles, and the implied dropdead backdrop, consisting of the buildings and grounds of the Château of Versailles, including the hall of mirrors, a reflecting pools, parks and parterres, marble statuary and fountains, garden follies, topiary art, regal allées, hedges and a ha-ha, in short, the ancien régime at its personal best. 

        But despite all this physical enchantment, the narrow world of the Court, and the vain and fickle courtiers who peopled it, is etched with acid. Almost no one in the film, save for some innnocents who have come from the countryside of Les Dombes, where the peasants sicken and die while fishing to supply the tables of Versailles, has any conception of life beyond the most frivolous, or can believe that anything matters more than what takes place in the salons and bedchambers of Versailles.

        The Courtiers of Ridicule compete for the attention and approval of their betters, including the Sun King himself. As spectacle, the French Court is ravishing: snuff-boxes for the men; fluttering fans and grains de beauté for the women, wigs and hosiery and elaborate costumes, heavy on the ruffles, for both sexes. All this may put the anglophone viewer in mind of Restoration comedy, for these Versailles courtiers are physically reminiscent of the Fopling Flutters depicted by so many English dramatists of the same period. Etherege and Wycherley and Congreve, however, dwelt far more on matters of sentiment, their court being a harmless cour d’amour, while the Versailles Court of Ridicule is indeed a real Court, the center of political power, where approval and preferment can be won through besting others in deployment of the retort discourteous, or in smudging a rival’s cheek with a sooterkins of wit. 

        When a remake of the film, updated to take place in the present, was first proposed to Director Raymond Aron and Tocqueville Studios two years ago, they could not resist, and at once set to work. The world will soon be able to compare the original model with its brilliant mimic, for Lui, ou Ridicule (the title of the new film) will be ready for release within the year.. It retains the theme of the original, the essentially frivolous and vicious Court with its cruelties and silliness and corruptions, but transplants the scene to official France today.  Instead of being confined to Versailles, we have a world bounded by the Elysée Palace, the Quai d’Orsay, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the offices of Le Monde and Le Monde Diplomatique, the Institut du Monde Arabe, the Ecole Nationale du Paysage in Versailles, a restaurant on the rue de Varenne and another at the gardens of the Palais-Royal, a few banks with flexible executives, a lingerie store on the rue des Saints-Pères, apartments on the Avenue Foch and at least one very particular establishment near the rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, and even locations outside of Paris: renovated farmhouses in Brittany and Normandy, a mas in Mougins, a beachside retreat on the Ile de Ré.

        Aron has replaced the 17th century courtiers with their current French avatars, the 21st century  ministers and subministers and councillors and advisers, the non-stop pontificators (no talkback shows here!), editorial writers who lunch with  distinguished sénateurs (as distinguished as Georges van Heeckeren-d’Anthès who, when asked many decades later, how he felt about having killed Pushkin, first poet of Russia, in a duel, replied indignantly “Mais moi aussi” – I too am someone – “ je suis sénateur”). As the camera mockingly makes clear, everyone in this modern court knows everyone else, just as at Versailles. Everyone makes fun of everyone else, just as at Versailles. Everyone bows and scrapes, in the modern manner, not one degree deeper than absolutely necessary, just as at Versailles. General opinions are first planted, then carefully cultivated, kept alive through vaporings, at regular intervals, in the hothouse atmosphere of French political and intellectual life and, when hardy enough to withstand severe mental weather or contretemps, placed in the shrines of received ideas, by a press not much different, in its limited range, from the court news that was once supplied to the inhabitants of Versailles. As to the modern courtiers themselves, their own pursuits are equally limited. Four arts – eating, drinking, speaking, and making love (ars manucandi, ars bibendi, ars loquendi, ars amandi)  – constitute the four lodestars of their lives, their trivial quadrivium, almost exactly as happened with the courtiers at Versailles.

The star of Lui, ou Ridicule is Monsieur le Ministre, referred to by that name, or more often, by his aides, simply as Lui. In the whole movie his first name (Gontran or Gonzague or Dominique –-it hardly matters) is mentioned only once, but his Christian and family names, the viewer understands, are securely conjoined by an Almanach de Gotha particle. As we learn, he dreams of France, and la Gloire, and Napoléon avec tout son saint-crépin; but his real life is full of smaller ambitions, beginning with the mirror, mirror on the wall:

Sui je, sui je, sui je beau?

Il me semble, a mon avis

Que j’ay beau front et doulz viz.

 

Barber, tanning salon, all the unguents of the East, take care of that age-old problem. But there is the matter of what version of Byronism makes sense in the early years of the twenty-first century. In a world of Blackberries and Palm Pilots, M. le Ministre craves a different world, les attitudes et modes d'antan. "There has not been a day when, seized by the tribulations of doubt, I have not dwelled on the voice of the past….not a day when I have not felt the imperious need for memory.. ." he tells his aides. Yes, he continues, he will never "surrender to indifference, derision, and mocking," he will "continue to move forward in the service of a French ambition." Similar sentiments are expressed throughout, for le Ministre does not so much have ideas, as ideas have him.

At international gatherings, when the camera is upon him, he takes out his thick, elegant and expensive fountain pen, crossing out a line, inserting a word or two, even a phrase on the margin, with a line drawn from it to the place of its proper interpolation.. In the midst of these bureacrats droning on around him, he often becomes the oblivious écrivain who, instead of working in le petit café du quartier, or scribbling a lapidary phrase while standing au zinc as he downs a vin blanc, sits quietly composing right here, with furrowed brow, in a solitude of his own making, unaware of those television cameras transmitting his image world-wide. What concentration, what sang-froid. Wherever he is, whenever he removes the cap from that thick pen, the expression on his face reveals that he feels as D'Artagnan must have felt, unsheathing his sword from its scabbard. The flourishes of his elaborate paraphs express the plumeless panache of a well-dressed warrior for peace. For this modern swashbuckler, noblesse de la plume has replaced noblesse de l'épée.

 There are several scenes of interviews granted to breathless and adoring foreign females by le Ministre. His routine is always the same. He opens his briefcase, to reveal, not the dispatches sent by dutiful diplomats, but what he really cares about - the folders, or chemises, that contain his own work, and that will ensure his final resting-place in the Panthéon. Recently he has published a study of his favorite world figure. Since Le Président de la République faisait son grand De Gaulle, M. Le Ministre fera son petit Napoléon. The incomparable Napoléon Bonaparte, that other Lui, he of the Code, the Rosetta Stone, the March to Moscow, the One Hundred Days, and Not Tonight, Josephine. Un homme (de politique) est un homme (de politique), mais un petit caporal…. They have a special connection, Napoléon and he, Lui et Napoléon, though Napoléon of course had had an easier time of it, living dans cette époque-là when great men were easily recognized by other great men. Le Ministre knows that the ferocious destiny of history that demanded so much of Napoléon, now demands much of him as well. L'audace, toujours de l'audace. And so, working in his study, he intuits, he guesses, he dispenses with the ant's exhaustive research, and depends instead on the grasshopper's imaginative leap of empathy. Thus it is that his book on Napoleon is not a work of mere history, but a real contribution, in the grand tradition of personal reflections made by one great French homme de politique on another great etcetera. Napoleon is his guardian angel, qui ne se rend pas, and his inspiration. Il verse à mon esprit le souffle créateur.

At interviews le Ministre takes from his briefcase, with great ceremony, a fresh copy of his just-published book, with his name in white letters on the flap of red paper that goes around it, and below his name, in smaller letters, the title, and below that, a bullying blurbette from the publisher, insisting that this is "un livre qu'il faut absolument lire" and for good measure adds,  "et un livre inoubliable." Among the discerning, as we see from frequent remarks made during the film by his acquaintances, le Ministre has long been recognized as a riverain of Lethe, the only river, it might be said, with une rive singulière. But family retainers and friends supply enough favorable reviews of his books for him to remain complacently unaware of his real reputation. He does not call his own book "inoubliable," of course, but refers to its nearly 600 pages of delirious prose as "mon historiette." The hypocoristic diminutive, intended to charm and disarm, fools no one. Some are amused; they find "historiette" an apt diminutive indeed, and not hypocoristically.

Three times in the film we see him untying the thick ribbons of the folders which he has removed from his briefcase, to inflict mourceaux choisis from works-in-progress on anglophone female interviewers. A la patine du temps, those ribbons seem to whisper. He will read one of his poems, or two, or even three, without being asked. The journalists, each more impressionable than the next, can barely keep from swooning. Ses ébauches, ses ébats.

That whole ceremony is part of his expressed attachment to the Old World and its ancient regimes. He considers the past to be his best friend. Why, if he could, M. le Ministre would banish forever all instruments of modern office torture, phone and fax and email, as is clear in one scene from remarks to his aides about the good old days, before such levelling technology appeared. And suddenly, on screen we see old footage from Gaumont: gleaming pipes under Paris, carrying their freight of pneumatique bliss, and now the sudden whoosh of a petit bleu being transported from an entry point near the rue des Marronniers (where it has just been deposited by someone resembling Harry Baur), and then the note is being opened a few minutes later by a fine Italian hand on Avenue Foch.  Yes, the nostalgia for his parents' past, the blue remembered paper, the impression that his handwriting would surely have made on some princesse lointaine, that princess rendered just close enough through the magic of those subterranean Parisian pipes.

During the Revolutionary period French exiles found work, from London to Varsovie to Saint-Pétersbourg, as teachers of French, of dancing, even of manners. And the camera reveals just how much importance he gives to these skills, or their modern equivalents. Aside from a raucous voice and staccato delivery, le Ministre's French is marred by a taste for bombast. His manners are similarly exaggerated. When performing some trivial task of politeness for a woman companion, he engages in unnecessary gestures, such as a slight bow. As for the brisk ambulation that the modern diplomat has substituted for the dances of Versailles, he strides swiftly along the sidewalks and corridors of power. He can cover a whole city block, such as that leading into the kangaroo courtroom on the East River, in a New York minute: Quand le Ministre marche, il prend possession du trottoir, mettant un pied devant l'autre. And here he is, in the long inner hall at the Ministry in Paris, dans une charge guerrière, while his aides struggle to keep up -- or pretend to struggle, for they aim to please. "Ils grognaient…et ils suivaient toujours." They have nowhere else to go.

The director conveys le Ministre's dream-world, and his imperious need for memory, in a series of costume-drama flashbacks in the Walter-Mitty style. More than once, in this brilliant film, the director abruptly translates us to the French past, with period costumes and sièges à la reine, where le Ministre's thoughts now roam. Here he is, dressed in the manner of the late 18th century, ordering an aide to press the seal into the hot wax he has just dripped onto an important dispatch, un lettre du petit ou grand sceau (depending on whether it comes from le Ministre or his boss, le Président). Now a waiting courier, liveried in the fashion of the early 18th century (the costume designer was not paying sufficient attention), is handed the diplomatic pouch, and takes off, posthaste, in a post-chaise. Scenes of that post-chaise stopping at inns, horses neighing and stamping their feet while their reins are held by the coachman; arrival at the final destination, near Berlin or far Ougadougou, where that same courier is bowed in to be received by the waiting official, into whose hands the precious papers, containing the commands of le Ministre, are at last delivered.

And later in the film we have different dream-sequences, dictated by the imperious need for memory, and a very French ambition, when M. le Ministre is shown driving up to the United Nations itself in a calèche (perhaps the very same calèche that appears discreetly on his briefcase), right under the porte-cochère of his imagination.  Then, while his rivals arrive in their massive and sullen automobiles (the dream-sequence transposes past onto present reality and thereby produces surreality), there, in great ceremony, and still dressed in period costume, he alights.  Ushered in by a waiting chamberlain, he hastens forward, stopping only to allow, in a galanterie-pas-morte gesture, a beautiful woman, for some reason holding a Venetian mask in front of her face, to enter before him. 

Every shot reveals just how much le Ministre claims to love that glorious past, which he constantly invokes in the service of his French ambition. The past, as someone said, is another country, but there is one decade of that French past, roughly from 1936 to 1946, which is definitely not among the seventy countries he has visited in the last year, on lightning official trips during which he has learned -- nothing. That decade, however, haunts the film.

There is much use of documentary footage, spliced into le Ministre's present. Sometimes that footage reflects what he is thinking, or remembering, or thinking he remembers. Sometimes it offers commentary on the present. Several examples of the dramatic effect of the technique should suffice to show the director's acuity and the appositeness of what he exploits. There are still French people who remember the assault by domestic fascists, on the Assemblée nationale -- not a moral but a physical assault, designed to destroy the Second Republic. French fascists, known as cagoulards (from the fact of their wearing cagoules, or balaclavas, or ski-masks), after two years of mayhem and murder, even assaulted the Palais Bourbon in 1937. The forces of order repelled their assault. On the streets, the cagoulards resumed their main occupation: beating up the defenders of liberal democracy, and of course any available Jew. Real footage from the period is shown: the cagoulards in action. And added to the footage of the assault on the Assemblée, is what appears to be contemporary footage of a French student, M. Halévy, coming out of of the Ecole Polytechnique with a companion. The two are identified by the narrator of this pseudo-news as M. Halévy and M. Cicurel, who are then seen arriving in front of a famous school on the rue d'Ulm, where they meet a third person, several decades older than they, a Monsieur Bloch, and just as they are walking out of the grounds of that celebrated institution, all three are set upon by a half-dozen of those cagoulards. The outcome is unclear.

The director here is using the interpolated documentary to represent the repressed memory of le Ministre and of France itself, as elsewhere documentary footage is used to supply the inner workings of Le Ministre's mind. It comes up on several other occasions in the film, never for more than a few minutes, but as telling and memorable as the song-sequences in Dennis Potter's television dramas.

Later still, some real, grainy, black-and-white clips from Gaumont newsreels of the period. Here is hysterical Hitler, and here are his soldiers marching into the Rhineland. Here is Prime Minister Sarraut, looking forlorn, and now we see a representative Frenchman, all baguette and beret, standing on a streetcorner, reading an editorial in Le Temps, its headline visible over his shoulder:  "War is always a confession of failure." Now the famous clip of the Wehrmacht troops, eyes right, phallic helmets firmly planted, marching under the Arc de Triomphe. And now again we return to the pseudo-documentary, where actors portray real people, in this case the petty criminal Laffont and the ex-policeman Bony, who break into houses all over Paris, killing Jewish occupants, stealing their furniture, their paintings, their prints.Voices are obscure, and faces, hard to make out, move in and out of darkness, as if under the swaying lightbulb in Clouzot's Le Corbeau, another product of the Occupation. And now, quite a different scene, when the word "Résistance" occurs in conversation between Le Ministre and a journalist, on screen we suddenly see what purports to be black-and-white documentary footage, with  three men, , discussing something of which we hear only a few muffled words:: "le réseau"; "Famille," "Gallia," "Musée de l'Homme"; "Vilde," "rue des Saussaies." The audience slowly realizes that these actors are the same three who, now prematurely aged, had earlier played, in the pseudo-documentary about the cagoulards, the same men: Halévy, Cicurel, and Bloch.

This scene dissolves, and on screen appears a photomontage à la Dziga Vertov: first the German troops and tanks, then the signing of surrenders, and now the patient and resigned face of le Maréchal, which remains, while around the central vignette two dozen ovals appear, in each of which one can make out a recognizable celebrity of the period, practicing his métier: acting, writing, singing, painting. Le Maréchal disappears; now we see in the center the Libération, with kisses for the Americans. And now, those same figures that had been shown within those ovals appear, each enlarged to fit the screen, and one by one, just after the war. Here is the actress Arletty, unrepentant about offering a certain part of herself to a German lover, and then the art critic Brasillach, at the trial where he will be condemned to death for collaboration; and then, for a full three minutes, a clip of Chevalier crooning a tune in wartime Germany, and then after the war, making nervous excuses with oily charm for the unseen audience sitting in judgment, and then, for connoisseurs, the unfamiliar Drieu La Rochelle. But as if suddenly aware that time is passing and it has only reached the D's, the camera's omnibus begins to race, vorkapitching from face to face, until an unseen hand pulls the cord, and it shudders to a stop, on the Quai des Grands-Augustins (by this time we have reached the P's), for a world-famous painter amiably receiving the high-ranking German officers, potential customers bearing steaks and champagne, at his studio.

And now we are back in the multicolored present. But we are not yet back to le Ministre, for there is one last bit of footage, this from a television news report, barely a year old, about the travails of one elderly resident of a Parisian suburb. He is shown preparing to go out for a walk, first carefully removing his skullcap, and then proceeding warily down a street where, loitering by a wall on which there are pictures of Osama, Saddam, and Arafat, a group of young Arabs offer him zombie-stares of hate. Only gradually do we make out, in this 80-year-old face, the clear lineaments of the young M. Halévy.

The camera returns to le Ministre who, in his own busy world, has just been watching a two-minute news item showing present-day cagoulards, full of hysteria and hate, marching somewhere -- in Damascus, Gaza, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Beirut, Ramallah, or perhaps in Paris, Marseilles, Lyon, or London, or Berlin -- it is hard to tell. We in the audience, who have seen all the clips from the past that he has not seen, know that le Ministre could learn a lot from them, if only he had the time. He could study those cagoulards of the 1930s, that remilitarized Rhineland, those editorials in Le Temps -- collected, in the monitory one-volume edition of Hitler's speeches, My New Order (New York, 1941), by Raoul de Roussy de Sales, described by an American writer in the foreward "as representative of French culture and refinement as any man of his race as I have known." If only he had the time. M. le Ministre has never heard of le réseau Gallia, and knows nothing about the current plight of M. Halévy. But he would  be outraged if he did; no polytechnicien, no X quelconque, should be treated in such a manner.

The present moment seems far removed from those grainy documentaries. Bygones are definitely bygones in France today. When a close family retainer, a friend of le Ministre's father and, like him, a sénateur, serves as a character witness for a man known to have helped round up French Jews for the Nazis, no political damage is incurred. Time passes; memories change. Nowadays, in the received version, the executed Brasillach was a martyr to hysteria; absolutely everyone at Continental Films was a hero of the Résistance; there was nothing Picasso could have done to save the life of his old friend Max Jacob. Even collecting Louis-Ferdinand Céline is in fashion.

More than once in the film the camera hovers over the shoulder of le Ministre as he is consulting his computer. Ostentatiously indifferent to (therefore keenly aware of) his lineage, M. le Ministre has bookmarked websites that display ramifying French family trees, and he himself, his complacent smile suggests, is gratified to be sur tel arbre perché.  He behaves with associates as if he is the perfect product of a carrière-ouverte-aux-talents meritocracy, although at every point – and hardly a scene in this remake does not outdo the acidulous original in its bite – he has been given one boost after another by relatives and retainers, an aunt, a cousin-german, a proud globe-trotting father, even his spiritual godfather, Monsieur le Président himself.

One has come to expect only the best from Director Aron’s deadpan style, and he plays plangently on the clavier of the earlier film. In Ridicule the Courtiers kept adjusting their powdered wigs. In Lui, ou Ridicule, the chief of modern courtiers, M. le Ministre, runs his fingers through his graying, studiedly casual locks, with exactly the same attentiveness and facial gestures. He is fond of that hair, but not as fond as he clearly is of the sound of his own voice, and he loves to listen to himself talk; he believes his speeches rival the sonorous cadences of Chateaubriand, in some of his more imaginative itineraries ("J'ai vu les champs de Lexington; j'y cherchai, comme depuis à Sparte, la tombe de ces guerriers qui moururent pour obéir aux saintes lois de la patrie") or Bossuet, perorating over the mortal remains --"Venez, peuples, venez maintenant; mais venez plutôt, princes et seigneurs, et vous qui jugez la terre, et vous qui ouvrez aux hommes les portes du ciel" -- of the Duc de Condé. In witty counterpoint, both passages are delivered in an eloquent voiceover by an unnamed actor, overlapping one of le Ministre's speeches, thereby emphasizing the contrast between the elevated eloquence of Chateaubriand and Bossuet, and the hysterical pretention of le Ministre. By his compulsive references and often inapposite quotation of great writers, he invites comparison, and then suffers mightily from it. Nor are his words the only problem. While it is hard to sound unpleasant in educated French, the timbre and modulation of his voice, his staccato delivery, his excitable gesticulations, especially in places like Algeria or Morocco, all grate. At international gatherings, he gains in translation.

 The film is unsparing in its details. On le Ministre's bookshelf sits an unopened tome by Emmanuel Levinas, something about existence, and some back issues of Tel Quel. No doubt the director was trying to find a modern equivalent for the uncut Descartes that a courtier at Versaille might have been seen carrying under his arm. We gather, from asides by his aides, that he would like to be regarded not only as a a statesman, a historian, a thinker; his ambitions are grander still. He would like to be considered a diplomat-poet in the Claudel or St.-John Perse vein. Histoire, poésie, il joint du pied vos cimes. Alas, he is not a poet, not even a poet à ses heures, though this does not prevent him from versifying, and reciting those verses to anyone who will listen. And because in France culture has always been considered a handmaiden to the political world, or possibly vice-versa, he cultivates that intellectual and artistic elite to which, he believes, he truly belongs. How disappointing not to have his eloquence preserved in some equivalent of La Revue Blanche, or La Revue des Deux Mondes, or even La Nouvelle Revue Française. Instead, when he appears at the première of a gauzy starlet (the wife of a well-known court jester), and is snapped standing with the soubrette and her laughing claque, the photograph ends up in -- Madame Figaro! Instead of frequenting the salon of some celebrated salonnière, a Mme. Du Deffand or Mme. Recamier, or appearing as a sprightly guest at some televised Causerie du lundi, M. le Ministre is reduced, in this iron age, to appearing, with a certain frequency, on Radio France. On a late Sunday-night talk show, hosted by a female journalist of note, with a husband of equal fame, while nations burn, he shoots the breeze. No crisis will keep him from that fit audience (though few) he truly cares about: Christine and Bernard, Arielle and Bernard-Henri, Tzvetan and Nancy, Erik and Denis, Anne and Dominique, Dominique and Diane, Serge and Jacques, Edwy and Jean-Marie, Catherine and Gabriel, Claude and Aude. But very few of them, in fact, care much for him. His most receptive audience remains Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Le Ministre, just like the Courtiers at Versailles, is impressed by the lapidary brilliance of his own phrases. His grimaces suggest that he suffers ici-bas, barely enduring the calvary of this world – oh, take this cup from me – suffering, that is, from si peu d’esprits et tant de sots. He knows to which group he belongs; the long-suffering aides who surround him never hint otherwise. He is constantly deploring to aides the “bêtise” displayed by almost everyone, except his friends, his admirers, his patrons.

His favorite line in world literature, repeated five times in the film, is the first sentence in Valéry’s Monsieur Teste: “La bêtise n’est pas mon fort” (Stupidity is not my strong suit), which at one point he even stage-whispers to himself as he endures the speech of someone not himself. The bêtise he finds most excruciating is that displayed by the representatives of an inconveniently powerful country across the sea, which though still in its callow youth, presumes to ignore the lessons of its elders. Not one of them would be fit to raise a glass or a teacup in that société des nations of le Ministre’s imagination, that société pleine des plaisirs de moquerie et des goûts exclusifs engendrés par le mépris, as someone surely once said, and where, auprès de sa blonde, that Laetitia-Casta-lookalike, Marianne of France, he would surely turn every head. In that société, it would be no contest: le Ministre, le nouveau Vert Galant, in one corner, surrounded by admirers, and that midwestern yokel, the aggressively Jolly Green Giant, standing abandoned in the other.

When M. le Ministre speaks, what he says turns out to be of a surpassing banality, full of the kind of things Flaubert would have jotted down and used in his Dictionary of Received Ideas. Most are gaullisms half-baked, others brûlés à la minute, none coming out of his toaster-oven just right.  Promising entries already include: “France: an old country that does not forget its friends”;  “War: Always a confession of failure ”; “Americans: Must be reined in”; “West Bank: Occupied.” Some are sheer Polonius: “You grow with criticism; you are diminished with praise.” Those more inclined to film than to the Flaubertian sottisier may, when M. le Ministre delivers himself of such sillinesses, be put in mind of Chauncy Gardner in Being There, whose vapid remarks are heard as delphic utterances.

        Monsieur le Ministre juggles quite a few sentimental intrigues in this film and, whether African provinces are self-immolating or nuclear arms in fanatical Chosen are waving for his attention, he will always make time for such juggling. In the map-room of his mind the most important map remains the Carte du Tendre. From his point of view, the most forbidding and unpleasant site on that map is not the Forêt de tristesse, but the Lac d'Indiférence. This gives Director Aron, whose production values are famously high, a chance to round up the usual suspects. Not only Paris, but all of France is allowed to strut its stuff. Instead of scenes limited to Versailles, as in Ridicule, the new Lui, ou Ridicule was shot in many locales: suites in hotels near certain Ministry buildings on Avenue Kléber, and in the Hotel Lutétia (a mirror-lined retreat on the top floor, the former haunt of a decadent dressmaker, with a lovely view of les toits de Paris), is a particular favorite), the dining room, once the library-study of the historian Thiers, in a walled hotel with a fountain in front, and bosky spots and  petits chemins in Meudon, and  petits soupers in Epernay; why, the camera crew roamed as far away as Normandy, Auvergne, and  Provence. And the same care was taken with the musical score. While it would have been folly to repeat the music of 17th century Versailles used in Ridicule, Director Aron did find an equivalent for Lui, ou Ridicule to fit the fashion of these contemporary courtiers: less Lully, more Mistinguett.  And, for the opening and closing credits, bits from Les Cinglés du Music-Hall 1936, the year Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland.

Several of the scenes are worth individual mention. No film attempting to capture le Ministre’s Parisian world could overlook the literary prizes now handed out like confetti, not least to scribbling politicians (biographies of Napoléon, memoirs, hopes for the future of mankind) and their hangers-on. Perhaps the funniest scene in the movie is the award ceremony at the Institut du Monde Arabe, where this year’s Prix des Deux Rives is presented by M. le Ministre. The recipient is Mohammed Taqiyya, who will be honored for his “impassioned” and “brave” Lettres à un ami infidèle. Taqiyya, who had won early acclaim for his historico-erotico-philosophical meditations on Western threats to Muslim self-esteem in Europe, the “brilliantly original” De la résistance au résistant, acknowledges with a slight smile, and a complicitous glance, his seven old friends sharing the stage, le Ministre himself and the six members of the prize jury (Tahar ben Kitman, Gilles Pepelnitz, Olivier Comte, Alain Crèche, Erik Medvedov, Denis Tilleul). In the front row sit his unsmiling smala, consisting of his docile French wife and three hijabbed daughters -- Hazmat, Jihad, and Palestina.

Now it is time for the speech. M. le Ministre does not disappoint. “Above all, this brave writer, Mohammed Taqiyya, whom I am proud to call my friend and wise counsellor, speaks to all Europeans, instructs us in what we must know, what we all have a historical duty to learn, not merely “his truth but the truth that he extricates from falsehood” (“non pas sa vérité mais la vérité qu’il veut dégager du mensonge.”).  M. le Ministre now speaks in great earnest, in his harsh voice, gesticulating more than is seemly in a senior diplomat, and using the occasion as a springboard for what he intended all along to be a major statement. He tells his receptive audience that fears about Islam, one of the great abrahamic faiths, are ludicrous, the product of perfervid American imaginations (“Messieurs, I know what I am talking about. I was born in Morocco, in Rabat, just across from Salé, on the banks of the Bou Regreg. Je suis un homme de la mer blanche du milieu, un homme des deux rives.”). One malcontent who was somehow let in shouts “oui, à la dérive” but le Ministre is just warming to his Club-Méditerranée theme. Now it is time to invoke Art: “And surely French literature itself is unimaginable without the great poets of Islam, without the ‘singing crows,’ without the great Hafez himself? And when Victor Hugo, France's greatest poet, sought a simile to describe France's greatest warrior and man of destiny, what he happily found was 'comme un Mahomet d'Occident.' What better proof that we are on our way to becoming one civilization, despite those who, across an ocean, sur les rives lointaines, claim to be part of our world, but intend only to divide us. Their solitude is immense, oceanic. As they refuse to share our path, we shall work to keep them out. Route interdite sauf aux riverains. We have lived, as someone once said, too long together to be separated. We have struggled together for so long on the same difficult path. Civilization was born in that Crescent known as Fertile. In France we too know something about Civilization. Once we came to you. Now you come to us. What really matters is that the fertilization, the cross-fertilization, of our ancient civilizations, of our peoples, of our cultures, should proceed ever more closely, ever more harmoniously. An immense work, a work of audacity, and temerity. Yes, I am proud to declare here, at the Institut du Monde Arabe, à titre personel et au nom de mon gouvernement, this fervent desire: May the people of the Crescent continue to fructify France, and through France, all of Europe, and through all of Europe, the entire world, and may that Crescent prove forever and everywhere Fertile!” Enthusiastic applause having greeted his vaste programme, Monsieur le Ministre slips into his waiting limousine. Who are those ‘singing crows’, he wonders for a second, as he settles into the back seat. Within that motorized cocoon, he does not hear the malcontent exclaiming from the curb “Bravo pour le Prix, le Prix des Deux Rêves, des rêves délirants! Bravo pour l’échange de deux fantaisies!”  He glides back to 37 Quai d’Orsay just in time to discover that he has narrowly missed being blown up by a bomb that had exploded a few minutes before, destroying part of the Ministry. On Al-Jazeera someone has already claimed credit.

Louis XIV appears in the original Ridicule to great effect, and in the updated Lui, ou Ridicule, his equivalent in the modern Republic, before whose divine right ministers tremble, is le très-haut et très-puissant Président de la République. M. le Président is preoccupied, just as some of his predecessors, with the “sauvages de l’Amérique septentrionale” whom he thinks of as depicted on old prints -- we suddenly see them on screen -- that once hung in his grandfather’s house: “Habitans de la Floride ramassant de l’or” and an even earlier one, by De Bry, showing Indians cooking snakes for supper. He thinks of La Salle, standing there in 1682, in the middle of the forest primeval -- and now Director Aron shows us a scene depicting what is inside Le President's head: an actor, playing La Salle, stands amidst these primeval woods and claims the central vastness of the North American Continent for France. Ludovicus Magnus regnat, reads the leaden plate the explorer is burying in that virgin forest, where Atala had not yet been born, hard by the River called in turn Colbert, Meschacebé, Mississippi. They bought our land, Le Président at one point in the film informs le Ministre, those hard-faced Americans, in 1803, taking advantage of that winsome damsel in distress, poor little France, which at that point, preoccupied by a greater destiny than real estate speculation, sold Louisiana for a song.

It was just the same a half-century later, le Président continues in the longest monologue -- le Ministre listens silently -- in the film, when those unwary and trusting Russians, still reeling from the Crimean campaign, and the problem with the serfs coming to a slow boil in the tsarist samovar, headed off to market like the third, foolish son in the Russian fairy tale, who trades the cow for a goat, and the goat for a chicken, and the chicken for a frog, and returns home happy with his croaking bargain. Off they went, those innocent Russians, only to be hornswoggled by an experienced Yankee horse-trader from Massachusetts. All that Alaskan oil, sold to the Americans for what, nowadays, would hardly buy you a cow, a goat, a chicken, a frog. It was the same way with everything. Whenever we French were at our most vulnerable, those Americans would come along to buy furniture, mirrors, paintings, prints, fragments of churches, broken gargoyles, packing it all up, shipping it all back, for preposterous museums, where crowds now swarm and gawk lemming-like, their gazes turning in unison at the commands emitted by a plummy voice from officious headphones. And with all that appropriated art, those Americans still rush through the galleries in order to leave enough time for the café, and then the museum shop. That could never happen at the Louvre.

Now, le Président frets aloud, those American savages might poach on his African preserve, the chasse gardée that has long been a major source of unofficial income pour finir le mois, and pluck from France the rich fruit of its West African provinces, there where Christians still shakily rule. Those savages—either group, come to think of it --would be quite capable of offering such a cadeau de rupture in reverse. Such spite, and after all France had done for them. All those little favors, all those specially-graded bacs for their children. As for la fille mal gardée of Eastern Europe --- well, it was better not even to ask. These New World rustics, not a single poet or biographer of emperors among them, remain impervious to the customary blandishments. Despite his wide experience in every variety of foreign relation, Monsieur le Président is still astonished at American obstinacy. No one expected them ever to be as well-behaved as the inhabitants of an old country, like France, contentedly ramassant de l’or. But the way they were acting at the moment -- ça ne se fait pas. L’Abbé Raynal told Franklin that the discovery of America had been a mistake. L’Abbé Raynal was right.

Lui, ou Ridicule is a film mainly about a certain courtier, and while le President's appearances are unforgettable, they remain brief; the main focus remains not the king, but the king of the courtiers, Le Ministre. And here he is again, that courtesan de naissance, relaxing in the cozy hendiadys of hearth and home, seated by cette petite cheminée, qui m'est--a compulsive quoter, he complacently mouths the lines to himself -- une province et beaucoup davantage, for his thoughts are usually prompted by lines of verse learned long ago. Not that he minds. That thought would even please him, the audience realizes, if he ever thought about his thoughts. Why, to be slightly unhinged by your own reading made you into an immortal, like Don Quixote, or Emma Bovary.

In the most luxurious suites in the most luxurious hotels, the Relais and Châteaux where he relaxes when running around the world, he occasionally misses – no, regrets -- his humble cot in Paris Quand revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison?" It is in that house, done up in the well-known style of Mme. Haugoult-Dujour, where le Ministre is calmer, less the arrogant functionary sûr de lui-même et dominateur. He sleeps well at home, surrounded by his dutiful wife, his Irish setters Joyeuse and Durandal (usually kept in the country), and his three adorable daughters, Sophie-Charlotte and Claire-Alixe and Ghislaine, all cahiers and cartables and pinafores; his son William is away at school. Sometimes he even hums that old refrain: “Où peut-on être mieux/Qu’au sein de sa famille?”Le Ministre has endless stamina; he likes to wear out his aides and then keep going; he is a phenomenon; he hardly ever needs sleep.  It is fantastic just to see him move, leaving them behind: Il marche sur le trottoir. “You see, I like to do many things at the same time. At three in the morning you need to do something different than at two in the morning, because if not, you fall asleep.” Great men, of course, never sleep much; their gifts must be exploited for the good of humanity; it would be selfish to indulge in satisfying a merely personal need. Le premier levé, le dernier couché dans son empire…" as M. Arthur-Lévy wrote of his hero in Napoléon intime. Le Ministre confides to his wife -- in a bantering way, to protect himself, even from her  --  that he expects some future biographer will write something similar of him. But recently, even those few hours of sleep have been denied him. He has been waking up in the middle of the night, with a mysterious phrase echoing in his head: “Ils marchent à voile et à vapeur.” He tosses, he turns, he opens his favorite livre de chevetL’art de plaire à la cour, in bédé format, ad usum Delphini – but not even those pictures or little balloons of text soothe him. Who are they, and where are they going?

At the busy Seine-side quay where, in a very French ambition, he toils unromantically loin des brumes, loin des orfèvres, le nouveau monde cannot be ignored. America cannot be kept at bay. The camera shows him at home, in la France profonde of the 16th Arrondissement, and we hear his daughters lisping American slang. His television is tuned to reruns of some simple-minded sitcom filmed at studios in Hollywood; the news on the world-wide channel he favors is delivered by an American, speaking Rumsfeld’s English. In one haunting shot of the domestic scene, he quizzes his girls over dinner about how they are doing in their English classes, and suddenly, rather passionately, tells them that English is indispensable for their future, especially so if, for some reason – and now he is quietly emphatic-- it should become necessary for them someday to live “on distant shores, across that somber ocean.”

At his office, he is inordinately fond of Americanisms, and makes cruel fun of his aides’ kom-weez-me-to-zee-kasbah accents in English. Not everyone could spend a few years polishing his American parleyvoo at the Embassy in Washington, as he did, and he does not let underlings forget it. He uses certain slightly démodé phrases from those y`ears with gleeful abandon: “no problem” and “make my day” and “get with the program” and his favorite, “in a New York minute.” As he conducts his official business outside the office, hints of America are everywhere, usually at its comical worst. Monsieur le Président, when accused of reflexive anti-americanism, likes to recall his love of hamburgers, and one youthful summer in New England, working as a soda jerk. M. le Ministre is similarly condescending, for he takes his cue, in more ways than one, from Monsieur le Président. At a reception for an important commercial delegation from Iran, held in the Ministry’s garden, the camera pans as he deliberately leads a group of malignant and turbaned Persians past statuary by Coysevox and plants them near an unappetizing Jeff Koons, which will be hard for them to overlook. On a visit en province (Monsieur le Ministre, like Monsieur le Président, makes much of his putative roots in a corner of the countryside, though his attention to husbandry has been limited to buying a 1941 edition of Olivier de Serres' Mesnage des Champs, with an introduction by le Maréchal)-- le Ministre is shown stiffly appreciating some scrawls by Julian Schnabel incongruously on display in the Maison Carrée in Nîmes. Director Aron has done his homework; these details are as telling, as they quietly pile up, as the appearance of that Sonia Delaunay print on Marlon Brando’s wall in Last Tango in Paris.

        Slowly, by degrees, the viewer realizes that with his version of the daily grind, métro-boulot-dodo, Monsieur le Ministre is terminally trapped. His métro may be a chauffeured limousine, his boulot a round of meetings and discussions, vinous lunches and dinners at Arpège and Les Ambassades, and his dodo sweetened by charming if largely interchangeable companions but, still, it all keeps him so busy. He never has a moment to think, to read, to question, to wonder for himself, and we begin, by those same degrees, to feel sorry for him. A limited man, a limited life, set long ago on its upward-tilting but narrow-gauged tracks, and nothing that might introduce a note of salutary inquiétude will be allowed to distract that self-assured conductor, to derail that train. His directeur de conscience remains the editorial staff of Le Monde; for him, what Edwy and Jean-Marie and Olivier and Eric write is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. All his opinions are pre-cooked for him in the bain-marie or beuve-méry of their editorials. Like the Courtiers in Ridicule, he is locked into a little world, parvum in parvo, where almost everyone has the same thoughts, repeats the same phrases, holds the same values, exhibits the same follies. In that old country, mère des arts, des armes, et des loix, that does not forget its friends, we come to realize, Le Ministre stands, alas, for many more than just himself.

The audience finally understands, from his conversations with his fellows, in the media, in politics, in the grands écoles, that le Ministre represents an entire class, that so carelessly allowed the steady encroachment on his country by aliens who carried with them an ideology hostile to the Republic, to the very idea of France itself, hostile as well to the practice of those arts, to the use of those arms, to the application of those sensible laws. Someone -- le Ministre does not recall who -- once observed "il est deux categories de Français qui ne comprendront jamais l'histoire de France: ceux qui refusent de vibrer au souvenir du sacre de Reims, ceux qui lisent sans émotion le récit de la Fête de la Fédération." But there is now a third category, consisting of those who, living within the confines of France, care nothing for either le sacre de Reims, or la Fête de la Fédération, indeed are markedly hostile to both. And these invaders -- except for a few brave renegades among them --  regard everything that makes France France with distaste, from Les Lumières to the laic state.These invaders, from greengrocers arranging their bananas and dates, to bureaucrats arranging their flights, wear civilian clothes, and few can discern, or comprehend, what shapes their deepest thoughts and resentments, or those of their children, take now, or will take in the future. Through the professional and personal life of Monsieur le Ministre the audience meets quite a few of these aliens, particularly those who, often exhibiting a charm that disarms acquaintances only too willing to be disarmed, work at the Ministry. Few among the French are willing to offend, and in a silent, internal referendum, they have voted for themselves to do the adjusting. Better to avert one’s eyes, to ignore or discredit those who sound a muffled alarm, and to hope that – was Coué not French? -- “every day, in every way, things will get better and better.” In this evasion, it helps to keep busy.

So here he is again, the busy M. le Ministre, at one of those receptions – at the Moroccan, or the Brazilian, or the Chinese Embassy – meeting dignitaries, turning on the charm, constantly aware that in a moment he must leave to attend another meeting, of some Council or League or Congress, or welcome a visiting delegation from Kumquat or Monomotapa, or sign a copy of a limited edition  of his second book of verse, Les Réverbères (#26 of those, numérotés from 1 to 200, on pur fil Lafuma-Navarre, as the camera manages to record) for a fellow foreign minister (“Hommage de l’auteur; reliure de l’epoque” he inscribes wittily), and just after he has finished signing, we suddenly see him in a flashback, at age 17, taking down a book from his father's library, and opening it to a page with the exact same dedicace to his father, as he has just been inscribing, in his own book, at the age of 48, for an interviewer he wishes to reward.

We are left to ponder the hectic vacancy with which le Ministre's life is filled, and to feel a certain pity for him, despite the damage we see him do, day after day. Time is passing, life is fleeting -- ocymore, dyspotme, oligochronien as rose-éclose Ronsard remarked -- and though he expresses contempt for what he considers the "American worship of speed," the cult of vitesse deplored long ago by Georges Duhamel and Paul Morand, his own routine is as frantic as possible, and does not permit him to learn anything. For with all that diplomatifying, and versifying, and historifying, and speechifying, M. le Ministre is a hamster on a treadmill, a loquacious hamster, a hamster with good hair and a permanent tan – il se bronze, il ne se brise pas -- but still a hamster.   

Le Ministre of Lui, ou Ridicule, like the courtiers of the original Ridicule, is a parochial product of the Perfected Civilization, that civilization which produces mastery nowadays mostly in the arts of étalage and emballage. They know how, in France, to display their wares to best advantage, and how to wrap them, tied up with beautiful wide ribbons just like those le Ministre uses to tie up his dearest private papers. Like the shop-windows in Paris with those packages – the boîte de bonbons, the bouquet de fleurs, the bouteille de vin – that tourists take away so happily, le Ministre is beautifully displayed, nicely wrapped. But, like the 17th century courtiers, always deploring the bêtise of others, le Ministre turns out to be, at the moments of true testing, an example of supreme bêtise himself. At Versailles little was at stake save the pecking order at court. Nowadays, matters are a bit more serious. Everything was all right, said that Frenchman, until that moment quand la bêtise s’est mise à penser: When Stupidity Began to Think. Monsieur le Ministre will remain on many viewers’ retinas as the very glass and fashion of Stupidity -- nicely displayed, beautifully wrapped  -- Attempting to Think.

The most unforgettable scene in Lui, ou Ridicule occurs near the end, when Monsieur le Ministre, on his way to a party to celebrate the Millet-Matzneff fiançailles, suddenly remembers that he has forgotten to bring a token gift. His car stops at a bookstore, and while his driver, the taciturn and long-chauffeuring Abdel Kader (who had been off the previous day to celebrate the feast of Eid al-Adha) waits with the car, le Ministre goes in to find something fitting. Once inside, le Ministre finds it impossible to make himself understood by the surly clerk; it is almost as if, though they are both speaking French, there is some unbridgeable gap of comprehension, and the whole comedy arises from le Ministre’s complete inability to realize this. Finally, when the clerk produces what he thinks would make a suitable gift, a copy of L’Islamisme sans peine with French en face and Arabic en regard, and a ravishing Kufic cover, Monsieur le Ministre leaves “La Kitaberie” without making a purchase, and arrives at the party not only empty-handed, but uncharacteristically sheepish as well. A film not to be missed. 

 

 

 

 

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