“A thriller-like intensity”
by Fabien Lemercier
18/10/2011 - Interview in Paris with a French director who brilliantly and without bias tackles difficult social issues whilst creating stories and cinematic atmospheres that are highly stimulating for viewers. Here he talks about his second feature, The Minister [trailer, film focus], which screened to great acclaim in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2011, as did his debut feature Versailles [trailer, film focus] in 2008.
Cineuropa: Why did you choose to delve into the heart of a government ministry in The Minister?
Pierre Schoeller: I wanted to set the film in the world of power, for it to be a psychological mode, but also a story of men confronted and immersed in the heart of power. Because it’s a difficult, little-known and tense world. And without it being politically-engaged cinema, talking about society and what we’re going through today has always interested me. For the main basis of the screenplay, anyone can get access to the materiel I had: press articles, photos, books, a few visits. I read a lot between the lines. For political journalism photos for example, you have to look at the postures, manners, the staging of meetings… If you forget to look at the figure, the personification of the politician, all the rest is rather fascinating. I directly transferred the photos I collected into my directing of the film. Secondly, I had a few technical advisers: a photographer from French daily Libération, a former principal private secretary to the Transport Minister and someone in communications.
Why specifically the Transport Ministry?
What interested me was the relationship between emotions and power. It’s not the search for power or its preservation, but its exercise, how things unfold particularly from the point of view of emotions, feelings, friendship, esteem and low esteem… You think to yourself: who are these men and women who will spend 20 or 30 years in politics? Their capacity for survival is remarkable: cabinets and ministries are a very unstable milieu.
The principal private secretary and the minister embody two very different types of character.
There is a man in the shadows and a man in the spotlight, a man on the inside and a man on the outside, an inert man and a man on the move. The principal private secretary needed a neutrality, a kind of discretion and great elegance: a servant of the State figure taken quite far because he is after all rather exemplary. The minister is more someone who is thrust into the complexity of today’s world, its speed, technology, social tensions and tensions within government. He’s a seething character, who is fully caught up in life and has quite extraordinary generosity. But he is hard because the exercise of power leads to a certain hardness. And above all, there is a fierceness which means that this isn’t about glorifying a man of State.
The film carefully avoids making judgements.
This isn’t about ideology. It’s up to viewers to make their own interpretations. In any case, I wanted the film to be physical, tense like a thriller, whence this obsession with speed, this dramatic aspect and a story that never stands still. This is a lot about the strength of perception.
Olivier Gourmet in the role of the minister.
He is a major actor of his generation. He is the only one who could embrace all the character’s energy. If we consider the whole range of emotions the minister goes through, it’s a huge role. Every scene poses an acting challenge.
Michel Blanc as the principal private secretary.
It’s a role with presence. He carries the State on his shoulders. The character spins a fiction out of very little and Michel was brilliant for that. He’s a great actor, a little underused.
Your films deal with social issues without focusing too much on the private and personal.
I distance myself from naturalism right from the screenplay stage by setting a rather distinctive pace for the story. I’m obsessed with two things: what kind of experience are we going to offer viewers and what intensity are we going to lead them towards? In Versailles, it was a melodramatic intensity, in The Minister, it’s more of a thriller-like intensity. Once this has been laid out, the writing is free and it doesn’t operate according to psychological structures as it does in naturalism where the story is often a resolution of psychological conflicts.
What will your next project be?
A film about the French Revolution.