Not only is it the first time a modern-day French leader has been portrayed in the cinema, but the controversy that surrounds the Mitterrand legacy means the film has already caused ructions among the late president’s intensely loyal entourage.
The film itself depicts the last two years in the life of Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist president who died in 1996 and is released on Wednesday nation-wide.
Starring one of France’s best-known stage actors, 79-year-old Michel Bouquet – Le Promeneur du Champ-de-Mars (The walker in the Champ-de-Mars) was shot last year at a cost of just five million dollars by left-wing director Robert Guediguian.
France is exploring some long
In a country that is both highly protective of the right to privacy and sensitive about the stability of its political institutions, there is no tradition of the kind of biographical theatre or cinema that is now commonplace in the English-speaking arts scene.
But what makes Le Promeneur du Champ-de-Mars doubly sensitive is its choice of subject matter.
More than eight years after he died, Francois Mitterrand still inspires extremes of devotion and hatred among the public — for whom he is either a left-wing visionary or a devious self-aggrandizer with a lot of dirty secrets.
Mitterrand not forgotten
“Mitterrand is a personality who is very much still present in people’s minds,” said Sarah Drouhaud, a journalist at the weekly magazine Le Film Francais.
“Politics is not part of our film tradition, but on top of that this is a man on whom history has yet to do its task of weighing up and placing in perspective.”
Previews of the film suggest it is short on action and long on dialogue, with Bouquet-Mitterrand followed around the country by a young journalist, played by Jalil Lespert, to whom he delivers musings on power, socialism and death.
In what Bouquet describes as the most beautiful scene, Mitterrand is seen silently contemplating the marble tombs of the mediaeval kings of France in the basilica at St. Denis, just north of Paris.
Based on book
Inevitably those charged with guarding the late president’s legacy were suspicious about the film, but what set alarms ringing was the news that it was to be based on the best-selling book The Last Mitterrand by journalist Georges-Marc Benamou who himself helped write the script.
When it came out after Mitterrand’s death the book was reviled by his entourage as “obscene” and “shameless” because of the very frank account it gave of the president’s last months.
“He was the last politician to have an intellectual viewpoint… to put the mystique into politics”
In particular Benamou -who like the journalist in the film enjoyed long conversations with Mitterrand -did not shy away from controversial issues such as the president’s far-right past and his complex attitude to Jews.
And in the most celebrated passage he described a new year’s eve feast a few days before Mitterrand died in which illegally-hunted birds known as ortolans were consumed according to an elaborate gastronomic ritual.
Feasting on delights
The passage was written to suggest that Mitterrand took an unseemly sensual delight in the episode.
Reports that the scene was to be included in the film incensed the Mitterrand clan, who include his widow Danielle and daughter Mazarine Pingeot as well as former culture minister Jack Lang and the millionnaire philanthropist Pierre Berge, and in the end it was cut.
Whether they will find much else in the film to object to remains to be seen. Guediguian has said it is not a work of idolatry – but nor does he hide his admiration for the man.
“He was the last politician to have an intellectual viewpoint… to put the mystique into politics,” he said last week. “Today when I try to listen to (France’s rising political star) Nicolas Sarkozy on television, I get up after ten minutes to look for a coke. With Mitterrand I stayed.”