The French don't make biopics. The blend of fact and fiction confuses them and—as a new film about Mitterrand reveals—they are too in awe of powerby Tim King / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
French cinema has never been strong on biopics, which are generally considered an Anglo-Saxon hybrid. Some 300 biopics came out of Hollywood between 1930 and 1960, both JFK and Nixon were brought to the screen in the 1990s and this year we have had representations of Howard Hughes, Ray Charles and, from Germany, Adolf Hitler. The French are more reticent, demanding a clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction, which is why a film about the late François Mitterrand is causing such deep debate. Does one have the right to portray a real person, particularly a French president, in a work of fiction?
The concern can be sensed in the nuance of words chosen by the actor Michel Bouquet, cast as Mitterrand in Le Promeneur du Champ-de-Mars: “One cannot act or play (jouer) Mitterrand. It wouldn’t mean anything. It would be grotesque. So in this incongruous situation I tried to do what was acceptable: to represent (representer) Mitterrand.” Ignoring all else, the critics have been mesmerised by seeing an actor inhabiting such a well-known skin: “are we watching Mitterrand or Bouquet?” they all ask, totally missing the point. “Has Bouquet become Mitterrand? No,” they all conclude weightily, “rather Mitterrand has become Bouquet.” Bogged down in metaphysics, they question Mitterrand’s widow, daughter, associates: do you recognise your husband/father/ friend in M Bouquet? Yes, the hands are good, but what about his laugh?
Le Promeneur du Champ-de-Mars is taken from a book, Le Dernier Mitterrand, by Georges-Marc Benamou. Hurt by allegations about his Vichy past, knowing he had not long to live, the French president invited the young journalist to record the “official” version of his war. Thus for the last years of Mitterrand’s life, Benamou found himself a frequent guest at the president’s table. Having published these Mémoires interrompus, Benamou then brought out Le Dernier Mitterrand, a first-person journal. It was loudly condemned by the guardians of the temple as a breach of omertà.
“It’s the first time in France,” said Le Monde when the film came out, “that a contemporary statesman has been openly put into a fiction film.” The newspaper interviewed a wide range of directors and politicians: Costa Gavras, who has tried for three years to get a film of Mitterrand off the ground, told them the French have a unique attitude towards power: “It’s something sacred, still incarnated by the king.” This consecration of both the function…