February 10, 2007
The Last Mitterrand, 2005
In 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.