Bertrand Tavernier's political satire is hard work for non-francophiles
French director Bertrand Tavernier has a back catalogue of excellent films, including Death Watch and A Sunday in the Country. His films are rarely self-referential but address social issues, and it's easy to see why he'd want to make a political satire. Unfortunately spoofing government departments isn't something that travels well, and Tavernier's adaptation of the cult comic strip, Quai d'Orsay, is episodic, insular and hard work for non-Francophiles.
Arthur Vlaminck (Raphael Personnaz) is hired by foreign minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte) to draft an important speech to be delivered at the United Nations in New York. The task proves to be tricky; there's a number of parties with vested interests in the diplomatic message which have to be balanced, and veteran chief of staff Claude (Niels Arestrup) knows the ropes far better than the wet-behind-the-ears Arthur. And there's further complications via Arthur's girlfriend Nathalie (Sonia Rolland), civil unrest in Africa, and a visit from Nobel-prize winning author Molly Hutchinson (Jane Birkin).
There are some interesting details; the diplomats are restricted from using the internet, and spend much of their time highlighting quotes from books in an effort to appear learned. But Quai d'Orsay is a talk-fest, more like a radio-play than a film, and apart from a couple of neat visual flourishes, there's nothing cinematic about it. Arthur's girlfriend is nothing but window dressing, there for sex, food and with her job as a primary teacher lightly sketched in; Tavernier seems so intent in scoring points about the Machiavellian nature of international diplomacy and governmental double-think that any degree of empathy for the characters is minimal.
Quai d'Orsay addresses the complex nature of politics, but fails to translate them into a comedy which might play outside of France; it's a very minor work by Tavernier's high standards.
Reviewed at Glasgow Film Festival 2014.