Subtitles alone won’t be enough to translate “The Minister” for export, though writer-director Pierre Schoeller’s serious-minded exploration of what makes a French politician tick could impress local auds intrigued to get a nonpartisan look at the process; pic’s Fipresci win at Cannes is likely to boost its October opening in Gaul. A far cry from the rosy optimism of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” this dense, talky drama attempts to humanize a greenhorn Minister of Transport’s personal idealistic struggle in a far more realistic fashion, seemingly content to appeal to a small set of discerning viewers.
Opening with a vivid dream borrowed directly from Helmut Newton’s photograph “The Legend of Virginity,” in which a nude woman crawls into the mouth of an alligator, Schoeller’s film demonstrates a similar view of his protagonist’s fate. Politics is the carnivorous beast that devours good men — men like Bertrand Saint-Jean (frequent Dardenne brothers collaborator Oliver Gourmet, equally haunting in a rare white-collar role) — who are naive enough to believe in the purity of public service.
Saint-Jean awakens hot and bothered to an urgent phone call: There has been a terrible accident. A bus went off the road, women and children are dead, and so he must respond. Though visibly moved by the tragedy, Saint-Jean has been at it long enough to know the game. He dresses for the television cameras and measures the sincerity of his response by the quality of his soundbites.
Saint-Jean represents a new breed within French politics, which “The Minister” suggests has long been dominated by a self-perpetuating class of career politician. His old-wood colleagues admire his idealism, but use him nonetheless. In Schoeller’s view of government, someone is always using someone else, and in Saint-Jean’s case, the prime minister expects the protag to oversee implementation of the policy he most vehemently opposes: privatization of the French railway system.
In reality, the proposal sounds absurd, as it would mean turning a service whose state subsidization the French take for granted into a for-profit enterprise. In dramatic terms, however, the potentially scandalous idea suggests the degree to which Saint-Jean must compromise his personal values. And yet the minister obeys his superiors, proceeding dutifully into the gaping maw of the metaphoric alligator.
Schoeller depicts the character’s moral descent over a series of boardroom handshakes, backseat cell-phone conversations and onscreen text messages — all of which beg the kind of punchier behind-the-curtain stylizations Aaron Sorkin brings to such fare. Instead, The Minister” rivals the tedium of Schoeller’s last film, “Versailles,” in which you can’t help waiting for something to happen. The good news: Something happens all right, with Saint-Jean being forced to reevaluate his priorities by a spectacular — and spectacularly ironic, given his position as transportation minister — near-death experience.
Though laced with threads of dark humor, “The Minister” is far removed from the realm of satire. Instead, Schoeller coolly observes the loneliness and soul-crushing pressures of the job. The character’s only real companions are his pragmatic secretary (Michel Blanc), and the blue-collar chump recruited to be his driver (Sylvain Deble, an amateur who carries his own among pros). At home, seeing only compromises when he looks at himself in the mirror, Saint-Jean tells his wife, “You wouldn’t love me if you knew me.”
However frustrating it may be to follow, “The Minister” stands as that rare project that sees past the cliches of politics, paying the world respect through its elegant widescreen lensing and score (which Schoeller composed). The film is not about petty men driven by vanity or thirst for power. Rather, it recognizes the impotence of this particular calling and, based on the character’s early erotic dream, the curious thrill it arouses in some.