Friday, April 11, 2014

The Minister (Pierre Schoeller, 2011)

In the same way that Krzysztof Zanussi's 2005 Persona Non Grata offered us a cross section of the intrigues taking place in a Polish Embassy, Pierre Schoeller's The Minister has undoubtedly the merit of introducing us into a world we know only superficially, and generally never get in contact with. Most of its appeal indeed comes from the great care it devotes to illustrate the mechanisms of power unraveling inside the departments of a French Ministry.
The film follows the vicissitudes of Bertrand Saint-Jean, the Minister of Transports of a hypothetical contemporary French government. The opening consists of a dream sequence reminiscent of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, where mysterious hooded human figures cohabit the rooms of power together with a naked woman and a giant crocodile. Unfortunately, this scene sets up an oneiric atmosphere that the director never quite manages to fully develop, only occasionally resurfacing later in the film. (It could perhaps justify an op-ed entry in Jim Emerson's Opening Shots Project as an example of how a movie can confound the viewer's expectations.)

What we get, instead, is a slice in the no-nonsense life of the ever-busy minister Bertrand, punctuated by internal meetings, press conferences, strategic consultations. The Minister has primarily to face two urgent issues: addressing properly the public opinion following a tragic road disaster, and considering the option of privatizing public railway stations. Helping him with decision-making and public relationships management is a numerous staff of tireless advisors, among whom are his ten-year friend Gilles, director of cabinet and sort of ghost thinker; his taciturn driver Martin, who is also the staff's most recent acquisition; and the PR officer Pauline, who follows him in his daily routine and looks after his public image (when he walks in public, he always carries a stack of newspapers in hand, with the sport magazine rigorously displayed on the top).

Writer-director Pierre Schoeller seems to be primarily concerned with exploring the dark corners of power, with little regard for the geographical location: even though the events take place in France, they potentially fit to more or less any European country. With few exceptions, the public officials we see at work seem to be moved by mere political convenience rather than the pursuit of public interest. Far from scandalize us, however, this bleak vision is just a further confirmation of something we already knew  ̶  that the State is often damaged by the unworthiness of its representatives, and that private interests frequently prevail in the exercise of power. But, in an age when citizens' indignation against their government is so marked as is often aimless, a film that displays that very same aimlessness, and limits itself in describing the state of things without even trying to give an interpretation, inevitably appears half-done and short-sighted.

The film apparently succumbs to the same cynicism of its characters, always keeping its focus on a superficial level. The Minister himself is depicted as a self-serving opportunist, but we never understand what really drives his actions  ̶  ambition, lust for money, compensation for solitude. At one point he realizes that he has thousands of contacts on his phone and not even one friend, but the film never quite addresses this point in a satisfactory way. The scene where he has dinner at his chauffeur’s home looks perfunctory and unmotivated (it certainly doesn't help that Martin's character is only vaguely sketched).

Another weakness of the film is its lack of a clear point of view, a characteristic that sometimes can add up to a film's quality, but in this case ends up only as frustrating. In fact, while the story revolves mainly around Bertrand, there is also a bunch of characters that (perhaps desirably) seem eager to steal the scene, but never actually manage to. The newly-employed driver is initially presented as a key character that has a life of his own, instead of being only a satellite of the protagonist. Regrettably, this potentially fruitful narrative line is soon abandoned, and the interactions between Bertrand and Martin are not explored with the depth we would expect given the premise. The relationship between Gilles and Bertrand, instead, is developed with greater attention and is the true emotional hub of the story. Gilles is possibly the Minister's only friend, and what's interesting about their friendship is how it is influenced by the decisions Bertrand makes in the exercise of his job  ̶  private and public spheres are deeply interwoven.

The film is at its best when it abandons its pragmatism and tries instead to look askew at its characters, making their darker sides emerge. The scene where we assist to the birth of the son of Bertrand's former driver is particularly disquieting, not least because of the ominous music playing in the background (the director's brother Philippe Schoeller at times conjures up a particularly creepy score). Too bad that the director doesn't leave more room for such inspired, unsettling moments.

Towards the end, the dream about the hooded people comes back, but it's too late: by this time the harsh reality has definitively set in. Why the exercise of state power has turned into a ravenous crocodile, is a question left unanswered.

No comments:

Post a Comment