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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.02.12] "drama"

When you're watching five movies a day, you hope the fifth one will do something special to grab your attention. The Minister opens with a fully naked bombshell strutting into a room, spreading her legs, and climbing into the open mouth of a live crocodile. Thank you, movie gods!

Bertrand Saint-Jean (Olivier Gourmet) is France's beleaguered Minister of Transportation, a shrewd opportunist who has yet to truly define himself as a politician. Ostensibly, the plot is about Saint-Jean's behind-the-scenes battle to keep railway stations public. Meanwhile, his superiors gradually coerce him into taking charge of privatization, threatening to define him in the public eye once and for all… as a hypocrite. That's the simple version. But don't feel like you have to pay too much attention to the esoteric politics of the story, because the film works simply as a character piece. The Minister is about the many faces of the modern politico, and the effect that these chameleonic shifts have on identity.

Woken from dreams of tits and reptiles in the middle of the night by an urgent phone call, Saint-Jean is rushed to the scene of a grisly highway accident. He meditates briefly over the corpses, pulling grief out of thin air in the spare moments before his confrontation with the press. Over the course of the story we will watch him manufacture several personas, depending on his company. What do all of these personas have in common? An overwhelming, ill-fated desperation to please everyone at once.

To his staff, Saint-Jean is a mensch, offering up a lengthy paternity leave for a father-to-be even though he probably can't spare him. To his wife, he is the type of husband who buys birthday tickets to the opera, the type of lover ready to perform at a moment's notice, even when he is clearly exhausted from a stressful all-nighter. To his new driver, he is just a working class Joe, just looking for a salt-of-the-earth drinking buddy. But what is Saint-Jean to the citizens he governs?

Not enough, apparently. Throughout the film Saint-Jean is lambasted for his various faults by members of the public, and it clearly pains him. He has no way to fix the unemployment rate, no way to pacify the picketers who make demands he cannot meet, no way to rebut the wine-fueled diatribes of his driver's liberal wife. But he tries, ulcers and migraines be damned, he tries. It gradually becomes obvious why this man is an unknown quantity to a public that prefers their politicians straightforward: he simply cannot stand to let anyone down. Instead, he opts to be everything to everyone. But like a juggler with too many plates in the air, a crash is inevitable. And so the question becomes: who is this man? Does he have a true identity, and if so, will this political game he is playing ever allow him to realize it?

Writer/director Pierre Scholler opts for a visual style that reminds me of Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, spicing up what could have been a very dry affair indeed with snappy editing, dynamic visuals and the occasional flourish of surreality. One sequence in particular is a jaw-dropper, but I won't spoil it for fear of dampening its impact. Suffice to say that the job finally hits Saint-Jean in a personal way, and he emerges from the experience a changed man. Olivier Gourmet deserves special recognition for his multi-faceted portrayal of the titular Minister, but the cast is uniformly excellent.

If I were to level a critique at The Minister, it would be that the film appears to lose a bit of steam right as it should be wrapping up and delivering thematic revelations. But I want to be careful with any definitive statements in this respect. This is a very smart film, with a lot on its mind. Ideally, I would have seen it twice before writing this review. I was a bit overwhelmed after one screening, uncertain of how to rate it. But upon reflection the story continues to reveal new layers of complexity. The Minister is not just a great political drama. It is a great statement on what it means to be a politician.

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