Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry Lhermitte) is the French Foreign Minister, but his energy is often directed in the most inane and pointless directions, with his staff in a constant battle to mask his utter incompetence. To help the Minister write speeches, a young graduate (Raphaël Personnaz) from the elite National School of Administration is hired, though he too finds the politician's behaviour hard to comprehend, let alone solve.

Change of pace suits Tavernier.

In this rascally comedy from, all people, veteran filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, famed French comic star Thierry Lhermitte (The Closet) enters every scene at warp speed. He’s got a twinkle in the eye and the kind of face that a practiced political campaigner can’t help but envy. It’s a handsome mask of eager anticipation and earnest interest. Alas, looks deceive. Lhermitte here plays Alexandre Taillard de Worms, who holds the role of foreign minister in the French government at a time when there’s a rambunctious administration of neo-cons in the White House and much unrest in the mid-East. It’s a crisis atmosphere where diplomatic embarrassment seems but a sound bite away. (The time of George W., no?) But damage control is not quite Taillard’s style. Elegant, sometimes charming, he’s a motor-mouth that doesn’t know when or how to shut up. Tavernier and co. sneakily suggests this is perhaps how he got to where he is in the first place; in the face of such overconfidence, why not surrender? Conversations with the minister are not so much dialogues but improvised theatre where the listener is held hostage to a spontaneous monologue as Taillard’s twisty brain seems to conspire new and inventive ways to divest the power of speech from anyone within ear shot. He’s fond of aphorisms. When he gives Arthur (Raphaël Personnaz), a young political advisor, a gig (he becomes the film’s blandly becalmed audience surrogate), he advises: “We’re on a sinking ship. Where’s the Left? Where’s the Right?” The minister makes Arthur in charge of ‘languages’. It takes this earnest fellow a while to figure out that this means he is to be Taillard’s speechwriter. But what Arthur produces the minister discards. (He has a large tray of yellow markers for the express purpose of highlighting whatever it is he wants to highlight.)

Meanwhile, life in the ministry, Arthur finds, is full of pitfalls. Everyone speaks in a strange cryptic code and he always seems to be in the way. The policy advisor to Africa, Julie Gayet, appears to want to seduce him. Even his own girlfriend Marina (Anaïs Demoustier) encourages him to mock all this nonsense from the sidelines, which confuses Arthur’s sense of politics even further. Worse, the foreign office doesn’t even have the internet! Still, the been-there, done-that Chief of Staff, Claude Maupin (the reliably splendid Niels Arestrup), reassures Arthur (and us) that amongst the high velocity verbal gags, the pratfalls and absurdity here, the real work of government gets done. Maupin adds a nice layer of irony and some credibility to Taillard’s favourite in-house slogan intended to rise his staff to action: “Responsibility. Unity. Efficiency.”

Based on the popular graphic novel Quai d'Orsay, this seems an oddball project for Bertrand Tavernier, who began his directing career in the mid-‘70s and has never, until now, made a comedy. He’s better known for the grim convincing sincerity of things like Life and Nothing But (1989) and Daddy Nostalgie (1990). Still, Tavernier has always had a sense of humour and humanity, a gripping way with character and a strain of politics that has no time for the cheap shot or the fashionable party line. In short, Tavernier is an old-fashioned, unapologetic humanist and he’s predictably quick-footed here; he doesn’t skimp on the laughs and he maintains a style that’s a delicious co-mingling of the goofy and the erudite, the sitcom bright and deadpan nasty, all shot with crystalline precision on real locations by cinematographer Jerome Almeras. The genuine elegant beauty of the look only makes it all seem funnier (and it’s a long way from the strip comic graphics of the original text). The script – which Tavernier wrote with the book’s authors, Antonin Baudry and Christophe Blain – is directed at sending up a cult of personality; but what’s biting about the satire is the suggestion that the politics of life inside the ministry circus isn’t all that different from the everyday jostling for status and power out in the so-called real world.

It’s not without its issues. The subplots yield big laughs and map the intrigues of the ministry sub-culture brilliantly but they’re ultimately shallow and only accentuate the episodic nature of the thing. Better is the story design. It’s constructed around Arthur and that sets up the yarn of an innocent abroad while Taillard remains a remote figure of fun, turning up regularly in set-piece staff conferences and emergency meetings. But this narrative camouflages a cunning bit of misdirection. We wait for Arthur to wise up and catch the Foreign Minister out, or for Taillard to avenge any disloyalty on his staff. But this isn’t Yes, Minister. There’s a twist. It’s smart and feels true. It’s spoiler territory so details are impossible here. Let’s just say it’s about how the worm turns and ask yourself what that might say about the realities of diplomacy where the stakes aren’t ego, but war.

I think this idea makes it Tavernier’s film. He keeps the energy propulsive and the big performances have a weird schizoid quality that caught me off guard; just when you’re ready to dismiss this lot as ruthless clowns or hardline players, Tavernier offers a redeeming moment for just about everyone here that makes you think twice.
Perhaps this double-edge isn’t surprising. Baudry once worked as a speechwriter for Dominique de Villepin, who opposed the invasion of Iraq and later became Prime Minister of France. Eventually, he was implicated in a tax evasion/ money laundering/bribe scandal, la affaire Clearstream, in 2007. He was later cleared of any wrong doing.

I think what I liked best is the way that Tavernier makes the film about Arthur’s sentimental education and the universal tendency to dismiss politics as a triumph of style over substance. He never makes plain whether Taillard’s way is an act but he leaves no question over his courage. Like I said, looks are deceptive. Especially in politics.