For Lambert Wilson, playing the title character in his new feature, De Gaulle, was full of unexpected demands. It wasn’t simply the task of portraying a historic figure with a distinctive presence. It was also about finding the private man.
Filmmaker Gabriel le Bomin focuses entirely on a three-month period in 1940 when Charles de Gaulle, soldier, became a political figure, the voice and the leader of the French Resistance. But the movie begins in April 1940, not with military action or political negotiation, but with de Gaulle and his wife, Yvonne (Isabelle Carré), waking up in bed together in the early morning.
Starting the movie this way, Wilson says, was a challenge for both actors. “It’s a very discreet family, upright, Catholic, the private life is never never shared with the public. The nature of Yvonne was always very secretive, nothing was ever said, so simply imagining the way he would be touching her, that was the most confusing thing we had to do. How do they touch one another, how do they kiss?”
Wilson, born in Paris, the son of actor-director Georges Wilson, has a varied body of work in French and English-language cinema. He has made several films with Alain Resnais. He has played the Merovingian in the Matrix series and marine explorer Jacques Cousteau in The Odyssey.
De Gaulle marks the fourth time he has played a character who “has existed in the documented modern world,” as he puts it. In his preparation, he says, “I always think in terms of the family, that I have to be accepted and coherent and dignified in the way I present the character to the members of the family who have survived. I don’t care whether his son [Philippe de Gaulle], is now 99, he has to be able to watch the film and say, this is bearable, this is possibly how my father would have behaved.”
According to le Bomin, the opening scene had an interesting impact on audiences. It took people aback, he says, to see General de Gaulle waking up next to his wife. “It shocked them, in a good way, it provoked a reaction.”
For the filmmaker and his co-writer, Valérie Ranson-Enguiale, it was important not to see de Gaulle as a historic figure only. “We needed to see him as a man.” The place of Yvonne de Gaulle in his life is widely acknowledged. During the events of the film, the couple are rarely together, but they communicate regularly, in letters that we hear in voiceover. “The letters used in the film are authentic,” le Bomin says, “and they show a very loving, intimate relationship. They wrote to each other nearly every day when they were separated.”
In 1940, however, de Gaulle is not yet the public figure he was to become. In April of that year he is a 50-year-old colonel in the French army, at a time when France is facing military defeat. He believes the war should still be fought and could be won. Promoted to brigadier general when he joins the cabinet, he is shocked by the realisation that most of the military and political class are prepared to accept defeat. Marshal Petain (Philippe Laudenbach), the World War I hero who had been his mentor, is chief among them.
Circumstances and his own volition lead him to make a stand and put himself forward as a leader. “I think he had the intuition that he had a role to play in history, that comes up in his writing,” le Bomin says. He was also “pushed into the position because others refused.” The film takes us up to 18 June 1940, when he delivers his famous speech in London on BBC Radio calling for the French to continue the fight and to resist occupation.
This de Gaulle is an emerging figure, so, Wilson says, “you’re starting with almost a virginal image of the character. He has been in the First World War, he has worked with Petain, he’s written for him, he’s taken part in some military actions. But he is absolutely unknown as a public figure.”
Even that crucial moment needs qualification, Wilson adds. De Gaulle’s radio speech “had tremendous repercussions in the history of the war and the history of the world afterwards,” but at the time, “it was a sort of non-event. Although he was the initiator of the French Resistance, nothing really happened for a while.
“So in a way it’s his birth in the public eye, but at the same time it’s a sort of failed birth. It was a great moment of depression for him actually.
“And Churchill didn’t really consider him. He was hoping for someone of much higher calibre to represent the current of French people resisting Petain.”
Yet, he adds, “Churchill recognises something in de Gaulle: the solitude, the immense solitude, and a certain idea of the nation, of the country, and maybe also a certain contempt for his fellow-countrymen. I think both Churchill and de Gaulle were depressive men who didn’t think very highly, especially at that particular moment in history, of their countrymen.”
Intriguingly, Wilson’s performance has few examples to be measured against. Winston Churchill has been portrayed in scores of movies, often as a central character, but the figure of de Gaulle has been only a fleeting presence on the big screen. An actor called André Cayla-Legrand made wordless appearances as the general in half a dozen films, including Army of Shadows and The Day Of The Jackal. There have been a few telemovies since the 1980s that have depicted him. And he has been played on stage on occasions, twice by actor Maurice Garrel. But the decades-long, shifting legacy of de Gaulle has not been embraced by French filmmakers; the few movies that have been considered did not go into production.
Wilson says he feels it would be “terrifying” to play de Gaulle as the familiar public figure of later life. He has childhood memories of watching Gaulle, as president, on television. But that didn’t help him playing the character. The de Gaulle he remembers is associated “with a voice, with a mannerism that is so archetypal that I think it would have been easily ridiculous”. At first, he recalls, he tried to imitate that distinctive tone. But the voice of a public speaker is not the voice of a man speaking fondly to his wife and children or addressing his cabinet colleagues. The de Gaulle of later years “used those incredibly long phrases, the vibrato became like an old opera singer, the vibrato became bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think it would have been too much of a mask.”
Wilson wore make-up and prostheses to increase his physical resemblance to de Gaulle. But he has mixed feelings about their effect on performance. In the past, he says, he had envied “those American, English, Australian actors who do these transformations. I thought, ‘I’m really going to go as far as possible like that.’ But at the same time it sort of robs you of the pure acting. You get out of the make-up room and you have the face of the character and then you think, ‘Well, there we go, there he is.’ Yet you have to start everything, because it’s not enough just to have the mask. And sometimes the mask makes you dead underneath.”
He marvels at what make-up and prostheses can achieve, he says. “But for the next transformation that I have to do, I would be very careful with the use of that sort of make-up. I find the discovery extraordinary, I am fascinated by it. But it is a danger for the actor to have the face prepared by others. You have to do the work.”
De Gaulle is in cinemas now.