PARIS In an anecdote in Georges-Marc Benamou’s explosive 1997 tome “The Last Mitterrand,” French President Francois Mitterrand spends his last New Year’s Eve feasting on his fave delicacy — ortolan, a tiny endangered bird that it is illegal to hunt in France.
Book describes vividly how, in keeping with tradition, the president and his entourage cover their heads with their napkins and lean over their plates so that no one can see as they devour the birds entirely, including the bones.
This indiscretion and others in the book sparked outrage among Mitterrand’s friends, Yves Saint Laurent founder Pierre Berge calling it “a total and absolute betrayal.”
Following the book’s major impact, observers are avidly awaiting Robert Guediguian’s bigscreen adaptation of “The Late Mitterrand,” in competition at the Berlin Film Festival — the first French film ever about a Gallic head of state.
Not only is the notorious ortolan incident left out of the script penned by Benamou and Gilles Taurand, revelations that marked the Socialist leader’s latter years, about his friendships on the extreme right and the love child he kept hidden for nearly two decades, are only alluded to.
In contrast with Germany’s “The Downfall,” which shows Adolf Hitler cuddling up to Eva Braun, Mitterrand’s wife, mistress and children by both, never show their faces.
For some this might smack of a missed opportunity, but self censorship it isn’t.
“I don’t care that Mitterrand had two women in his life,” asserts the helmer of “Marius et Jeannette” with conviction. “That had nothing to do with his political judgment.”
For Guediguian, a former card-carrying member of the French Communist Party, his biggest interest in life remains politics. And in “The Last Mitterrand”, starring Michel Bouquet and Jalil Lespert, that’s what takes center stage as he eavesdrops on interviews the ailing Mitterrand gave to Benamou over a two-year period before his death from prostate cancer in 1996.
“Mitterrand was a great thinker who often had brilliant things to say, and it is a pleasure to hear him expound on politics, death, women, gastronomy,” the director says. It’s not all that frequent that we get to see a display of intelligence in a film.
“I don’t want people to come to any conclusions about Mitterrand,” Guediguian says. “I want the film to make them think about society and politics. Twenty years of globalization have produced a generation that thinks it is not possible to change the world.”
Veteran Bouquet, an uncanny Mitterrand look-alike, does a star turn as the crabby, manipulative head of state who does “80% of the talking,” according to Guediguian, while Lespert is convincing as the earnest, frequently out-of-his-depth young Benamou.
If the film offers no clues to Mitterrand the husband or lover, it doesn’t shy away from his very human obsession with approaching death, which crops up constantly in his conversations with the journalist.
Guediguian concedes that Bouquet’s Mitterrand comes across as nicer than France’s leader was in real life.
“Cinema tends to embellish,” Guediguian says. That’s why I won’t see “The Downfall.’ Hitler was a human being, but I don’t see the value in showing him to be human.”