Terrible English title aside, “Being President” is a terrific documentary that follows Gaul’s current head of state, Francois Hollande, during his first eight months in office. Helmed by Patrick Rotman, this is a unique, almost all-access portrait, shot with pared-down elegance, that suggests what the day-to-day of a contempo French president is like — more meetings and speech rewriting than you can shake a stick at — as well as how Hollande in particular makes it his own. A film of observation rather than of juicy revelations, “Being” might be a tough sell theatrically, though docu fests and smallscreen buyers will be impressed.
A politically inclined documentary filmmaker (TV’s “Chirac,” “Mitterrand, le roman du pouvoir”) and screenwriter (the Sarkozy pic “The Conquest”), Rotman seems ideally suited to document the inner workings of the presidential Elysee Palace and the man at its head. (The helmer simultaneously directed “A l’Elysee,” a nonfiction feature for co-producing Canal Plus that focuses on the palace’s employees).
As per onscreen credits, Rotman “proposed and developed” the pic with Pierre Favier, a political journalist who not only collaborated with Rotman on “Chirac,” but also extensively covered the Elysee under Mitterrand and co-penned a 2009 book of interviews with then-politician Hollande. The duo also interviewed the chief of state on several occasions, and audio recordings of these encounters are occasionally used as voiceover. Hollande suggests, for example, that the Elysee, whose empty corridors and opulent furnishings are elevated to more than just decor here, is a place in which time has seemingly stopped, and that it’s his job to breathe some life into these inorganic trappings of power.
Filming started on May 15, 2012 (exactly a year before the pic’s local release), when Hollande was officially installed as the 24th president of the French Republic. The first sequence consists of wide, high-angle shots as the country’s former first couple, Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, leave the Elysee and Hollande arrives. But the film rapidly moves closer to its subject indoors, with the camera present at a variety of weekly encounters with ministers and heads of department; meetings to prepare international summits; and official functions such as a trip to United Nations headquarters and a grand dinner organized for the state visit of Italo president Giorgio Napolitano (actresses Monica Bellucci and Carole Bouquet can be spied among the guests).
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The impression Hollande gives in these images and the separate voiceovers is one of quiet but authoritative efficiency; he’s well prepared in meetings, extremely demanding (he’s rarely happy with his prepared speeches and revises them himself), good at delegating to lower-ranking officials but also taking advice from them, and constantly aware that he’s the man in power. “We can be friendly but not equals,” he says of his ministers at one point.
Thankfully, he’s also got a sense of humor, which occasionally comes through here. Rotman and his two lensers occasionally underline the absurdity of some scenes, as when three people groom the president simultaneously for a photo shoot.
Some details will fly over the heads of viewers unfamiliar with French politics and Hollande in particular, such as a scene in which he watches Segolene Royal, his ex-wife and a presidential candidate herself in 2007, as she concedes defeat in the June 2012 parliamentary elections (his dry commentary: “She’s credible”). But Rotman isn’t much interested in specifics, and the film deliberately avoids captioning any dates, places or people. Instead, through the fluid editing of Yvan Gaillard, “Being” tries to give a wide-ranging impression of what a French president does and how Hollande, specifically, does it.
Oddly, the filmmakers fail to include any mention of the type of access they had, though the press materials explain that they filmed for about 50 days over an eight-month period and had to ask for Hollande’s approval for each specific date (“He rarely said no”). The officeholder was shown only Rotman’s final edit and wasn’t given the opportunity to censor anything, with the president’s professed reason for participating being that “transparency can only benefit democracy.”
Lensing by Romain Winding (“Farewell, My Queen,” a handheld exploration of a different type of French ruler) and Dominique Gentil (“The Chorus”) is dictated by available light and the need to remain as unintrusive as possible. Even though there are a few shakycam shots, the camerawork’s mostly polished. Direct sound isn’t always perfect but generally fine, while the musical score — a lot of clarinet, cello and piano — further adds to the pic’s classiness.