It’s not unusual for a film to center on an ailing older man imparting wisdom and experience to a young man before it’s too late, but in “The Last Mitterrand” the oldster in question is French president Francois Mitterrand and the young man is a 30-year-old journalist ostensibly helping him with his memoirs. As the socialist prez who led Gaul for two seven-year terms from 1981-95, Michel Bouquet gives a perf that certainly equals — and perhaps surpasses — Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon and Bruno Ganz’s recent Hitler.
A welcome departure by helmer Robert Guediguian from his Marseilles-set pics, this is an accomplished and subtle portrait of a shrewd, infuriating, yet lovable politician deliberately leaving gaps in his legacy. What emerges is a look at power, strategy and how youthful ideals — as well as possible youthful errors — shape a man.
While script alludes to specific incidents without spelling them out, viewers unfamiliar with Mitterrand’s reign can still enjoy the pic in the same way it’s possible to enjoy “The Motorcycle Diaries” without knowing Ernesto Guevara went on to become Che. One need only know there’s a country called France that saw fit to elect a left-wing head of state during the same period when communism was teetering and toppling throughout the Eastern Bloc.
Journalist Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert) explains in voiceover he doesn’t know precisely why the prez chose him, but they’ve been meeting on and off to hammer out a manuscript. Unencumbered by false modesty, Mitterrand tells Antoine he’s the last of the great French presidents and that due to encroaching globalization and the administrative homogenization of Europe, only “money-men and accountants” will hold the office in his wake.
Antoine is determined to clear up lingering discrepancies about when, exactly, the young Mitterrand joined the Resistance, the better to confirm or crush speculation that the budding politician was too cozy with the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Mitterrand is alternately cagey and borderline irate. Rather than deal constructively with accusations that France should have apologized for helping deport its own citizens during the German occupation, the president states no apology is needed because “Vichy was not France.”
Explaining that his enemies have hounded him for 50 years, Mitterrand takes pride in the fact his adversaries have never been able to nail him for alleged improper conduct during the early years of WWII. The distinction is maddening for Antoine: Has Mitterrand not been nailed because there’s no foundation to the accusations or has he simply outsmarted his accusers?
Mitterrand’s health is in decline, and his personal physician, Dr. Jeantot (Philippe Fretun), is almost always at hand, along with the president’s chief bodyguard, Fleury (Philippe Lemercier). Toward the end of Mitterrand’s second term, the press exposed the existence of the president’s illegitimate teen daughter, Mazarine, but his prostate cancer — which had already been diagnosed but was hushed up when he ran for re-election — was not considered a fit topic for public delectation.
Antoine is consumed by his research and Mitterrand’s elusive character; Mitterrand concentrates more and more on his own imminent demise. The assignment does not help Antoine’s marriage to feisty but disgruntled Jeanne (Anne Cantineau), whose communist parents provide a window on France’s co-opted past of working-class dreams for a better world.
As he effortlessly summons pertinent quotes from writers and thinkers of lasting import, Mitterrand’s intellect in action is a gorgeous thing to behold. His analysis of why “The Right hates to be betrayed” couldn’t be more pertinent — applied to either Gaul or the collection of 50 states across the Pond. His advice, too, to Antoine on what sort of women to get involved with is both funny and revealing, and his late-arriving riff on Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” borders on the surreal.
Lespert holds his own as the reporter, enhancing Bouquet’s flawless perf as the latter conjures the assurance of a great tactician tempered by the pain of a dying man.
Production design convincingly conveys the trappings of power — although most heads of state surely rate more than one bodyguard. Lensing is direct and communicative.