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February 10, 2007

The Last Mitterrand, 2005

last_mitterrand.gifIn an early episode in Robert Guédiguian's The Last Mitterrand (Le Promeneur du champ de Mars), the ailing president (Michel Bouquet) visits the royal catacombs of Saint Denis Basilica with his personally selected ghostwriter for his memoirs, a young writer named Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert), and regards the extraordinary realism of a sculpture, glistening from condensation, depicting the anguish of Catherine de Medici's convulsed body at the moment of death - a testament, he explains, to the unflinching aesthetic of a time during the Middle Ages when artists strove to capture both the mystery and anxiety of the process of death, the crystallizing moment of transis. In a sense, this indelible image of the body in a state of mortal transfiguration also serves as an incisive reflection of the president's own personal and public life. Approaching the end of his presidency and battling an incurable, aggressive cancer that has already begun to ravage his aging body, the still sharp-witted, gregarious, and charismatic statesman approaches his mortality with a self-possession and unshakeable conviction of his secured place in history, as well the profound culture impact that his death would have, not only in national politics, but also in the symbolic embodiment of an increasingly extinct French identity with the assimilation of a free (old) Europe under a common market, and the advent of the multi-pronged approach to modern warfare that has rendered irrelevant the old world-styled "gentlemen agreements" of international diplomacy. But in a long and distinguished political career that has weathered the humiliation of occupation, the devastation of world war, and the chaotic struggle of decolonization, his public service legacy is still haunted by the shadow of his early - and irreconcilably obfuscated - tenure in the German-installed Vichy government and in particular, the level of his implication in the notorious René Bousquet affair, the Vichy chief of police who carried out an anti-Semitic campaign that led to the mass deportation of French Jews during the early 1940s. Within this context, even the chronology of a photograph taken with Marshal Philippe Pétain, a Great War hero turned wartime Vichy head of state, misdated (perhaps intentionally) by one year during a passing comment by the president to Moreau during a working meeting (a murky timeframe that, uncoincidentally, spans Pétain's public image transformation from savior of France to Nazi collaborator), reflects the malleability of history: an error that may either reveal the fog of memory eroded by the ravages of time and illness, or a subconscious attempt to reconcile with transgressions of the past by a man acutely aware of his own mortality and culpability. Guédiguian's remarkable depth of cultural (and geographic) texturality and penchant for complex characterizations prove ideally suited for the film's nuanced, but illuminating portrait, not only of a dying man and public figure, but of the very embodiment of a national soul in the throes of its own transis - often willful, suppressed, and contradictory in its attempts to come to terms with an unreconciled collective memory, and foundering under an encroaching, realized fear of obsolescence and cultural marginalization in the wake of globalization at twilight of the millennium. It is this uncharted journey through the existential threshold between life and death that is inevitably captured in the film's allusive reference to the "walker of Martian fields" in its original, eccentric title, a paradoxically somber, yet whimsical evocation of the profound desolation - and disorientation - of existential passage.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 10, 2007 | | Filed under 2007


Beautiful text. I thought Guédiguian did a film quite unlike his usual family drama, a new serious/neutral style which like you say is more suited to this (hi)story.
An important controversy of this end of reign is that Mitterand lied about his cancer (while publishing a forged health check up for the public), and even chose the day of his death, in order to control the image of his posterity, and be able to stay president till the end.
"Le Champ de Mars", which is the park at the feet of the Eiffel Tower, is such a common name that I'd forget the double entendre you refer to. The planet, but maybe also the roman war god (martial).

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Feb 13, 2007 12:10 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Harry, you're right about the new direction that Guédiguian embarks on with this film. It's not just the serious/neutral style, but it's also pulling together this idea of "landscape as character" that's in his earlier films with this history as a "shaper" of landscape that's in this one.

Interesting about the Mitterrand piece of information about the cancer controversy. You do get the sense that he's also very actively controlling his public image, and even trying to employ a bit of self-serving revisionism, but I was surprised that the film didn't even mention the controversy about the assassination attempt.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 13, 2007 4:40 PM | Permalink

Maybe you know it already, the character of Antoine Moreau is inspired by a real life journalist, Georges-Marc Benamou, who wrote several books on him : Le Dernier Mitterrand), (which the film is adaptated from), Jeune homme, vous ne savez pas quoi vous parlez, which revelations on the president's secrets caused controversies.

I think I remember Guédiguian was criticized for omitting certain details from the president's life, with ellipsis (his intention was a militant homage not a political satire). Was his hidden illegitimate daughter mentionned in the film? I don't remember that.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Feb 14, 2007 3:18 AM | Permalink

I think in one of the times when Antoine is narrating, he mentions the illegitimate daughter as one of the topics where he needed to draw a line between the personal and political that he doesn't want to cross. It's ironic that Benamou does though.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 14, 2007 8:47 AM | Permalink

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