A government office that functions much like “The Office” is the setting of “Quai d’Orsay,” a sparkling and savvy comedy of political manners from the unlikely hand of veteran French auteur Bertrand Tavernier. Best known at home and abroad for sweeping historical epics like “Captain Conan,” “Life and Nothing More” and the recent “Princess of Montpensier,” Tavernier jettisoned much of his usual crew (save for composer Philippe Sarde) for this adaptation of the popular graphic novels by author Antonin Baudry (writing under the pen name Abel Lanzac) and illustrator Christophe Blain, and the spry, pleasingly funny result has a greater snap and energy than Tavernier’s last several pics. While it would be easy to dismiss “Quai” as “too French” for foreign export, there are many virtues here for which no translation is needed — chiefly, Thierry Lhermitte’s hilarious central perf as a vain politico who abounds with the rubbery grace of a Tex Avery cartoon character. Pic goes out Nov. 13 in Gaul via Pathe.
If Tavernier (who adapted the screenplay together with Baudry and Blain) has never made a film in quite this key before, his love for the Hollywood studio comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s is in strong evidence throughout, from the rapid-fire dialogue to the workplace setting with its range of personalities competing for the boss’ affections. It’s a scenario that at times recalls Ernst Lubitsch’s classic “The Shop Around the Corner” — only here, instead of the avuncular novelty-shop owner Mr. Matuschek, the boss is one Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Lhermitte), France’s reigning minister of foreign affairs, whose harried staff is at a constant loss to keep up with, or make complete sense of, him.
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As he was in the graphic novels, Taillard serves as a stand-in for real French foreign minister (and later prime minister) Dominique de Villepin, a career diplomat who made international waves with a February 2003 speech before the United Nations Security Council in which he strongly opposed the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. Baudry, who worked for Villepin at the time as speechwriter, used that event as the climax of the first “Quai” volume (published in 2010), which Tavernier’s film follows rather closely — beginning with the arrival of Baudry’s alter ego, the fresh-faced recent grad student Arthur Vlaminck (Raphael Personnaz) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in search of a job. (Pic’s metonymic title refers to the ministry’s location on the left bank of the Seine.)
Though he doesn’t quite look the part, showing up for an interview in khaki pants and mud-caked shoes where svelte Saville Row is clearly the standard couture, something about Arthur strikes Taillard’s fancy. Or maybe he’s just too busy pontificating to notice, assailing the prospective hire with unanswerable riddles (“We’re on a sinking ship. Where’s the left? Where’s the right?”) and useless trivia about the origin of certain proverbs. And so Arthur finds himself joining a big, not especially happy work family that includes myriad regional ministers and one weary, hangdog chief of staff (a wonderfully deadpan Niels Arestrup), clearly the one responsible for putting out fires and making sure Taillard doesn’t fall flat on his face.
The looming crisis in Iraq surrogate Lousdemistan is mentioned early on, and intensifies when a French cargo ship catches fire in the foreign nation’s waters. But most of “Quai d’Orsay” is devoted to the day-in, day-out rhythms of the diplomatic life, as Arthur’s Candide-like optimism gives way to the Sisyphean crawl of real-world politics. Forced to work from a cramped corner desk that always seems to be in someone’s way, Arthur finds himself sabotaged for sport by one colleague (Julie Gayet, as the seductive policy advisor on Africa) and routinely sent back to the drawing board by Taillard, who dismisses his speeches at a glance and drones on incessantly about a good oration’s three necessary components: “Responsibility. Unity. Efficiency.” Meanwhile, very little of actual consequence seems to get done.
Smartly, Tavernier doesn’t try to duplicate the highly stylized look of the “Quai” novels, in which Taillard appeared as a towering, comically broad-shouldered figure with a long, pointy face akin to that of the food critic Anton Ego in “Ratatouille.” Instead, working with cinematographer Jerome Almeras (“In the House”) and shooting on real locations (including the floor of the U.N. Security Council), he creates a more or less realistic look enhanced by a few sly exaggerations. The ministry itself is rendered here as an almost infinite maze of long, gilded corridors opening onto vast, palatial rooms, while much of Taillard’s staff squirrels away in small upstairs offices with dangerously low ceilings.
Then there is Lhermitte, who plays Taillard as a whirling dervish of a man in constant motion, from his early-morning jogs to the thunderous gusto with which he moves through the Ministry itself (causing anything that isn’t nailed down to get caught up in his tail wind). Tavernier adds to the gentle absurdity by having the character exit one side of the frame and then, almost instantaneously, re-enter from the opposite, while his every opening of a door is accompanied by a gale-force whoosh. But it’s the actor’s explosive comic energy — his exuberant shouts of “camarade!,” his sidesplitting soliloquy on the benefits of highlighting — that proves to be the movie’s most special effect.
It would be easy for Lhermitte to play the fool, but what makes the character — and the film containing him — so memorable is that, as “Quai d’Orsay” progresses, Arthur comes to see that there are hints of canniness lurking beyond the stuffed shirt. Finally, as Taillard’s career-making U.N. moment looms, it becomes clear that, sometimes, responsibility, unity and efficiency really do carry the day.
Personnaz, who made a big impression as the dashing Duke d’Anjou in “Montpensier,” here strikes just the right note of stifled exasperation as the put-upon Arthur, while Anais Demoustier casts a lovely presence in a few brief scenes as his supportive schoolteacher girlfriend (who has her own looming political crisis on her hands).