As handsomely assembled as one of Le Général’s impeccable military attires, and just as glorifyingly dull, the new biopic De Gaulle shows the infamous Gallic leader juggling personal and professional duties during a pivotal moment in his career: the moment he entered history just as his country was capitulating to Germany in World War II.
It’s certainly a subject worthy of big-screen treatment, especially for a major 20th century figurehead who’s rarely been fictionalized onscreen save for cameos in films like Army of Shadows and The Day of the Jackal, or leading roles in a handful of French telefilms. Unfortunately, writer-director Gabriel Le Bomin is hardly up to the task here. That is, unless such a task consists of making a thunderingly academic hagiography where de Gaulle is depicted as the hero in every single frame, whether it’s caring for his devoted wife and handicapped daughter on the home front, or telling the Nazis and their Gallic supporters to shove it as he leads the Free French from across the English Channel.
A bland piece of hero worship.
Not to say de Gaulle’s wartime exploits weren’t heroic, patriotic and strategically brilliant, setting the stage for his own domination of French politics in the decades following the Allied victory he helped bring about. But did we really have to wait 80 years to see these events depicted in a movie as bland as this one? Released wide in France, the $12.5 million epic should find modest support at home, primarily among older viewers, while its subject matter could appeal to history buffs abroad.
Set over several pivotal weeks in June 1940, when the German army was piercing through France and the French government, led by Paul Reynaud (Olivier Gourmet), was deciding whether to throw in the towel or keep fighting, the film follows de Gaulle (Lambert Wilson) as he quickly becomes a key player in his country’s uncertain future. Back at home, de Gaulle’s dear épouse Yvonne (Isabelle Carré), who remains in touch with Charles by mail, is forced to flee from the Nazis with her daughter Anne (Clémence Hitten), a young girl stricken with Down syndrome.
The script, filled with grossly expository dialogue and loads of platitudes (ex. Charles: “You know my secrets by heart.” Yvonne: “It’s you that I know by heart”), cuts back and forth between husband and wife as France succumbs to the Germans and de Gaulle, who is vehemently against the armistice, heads to England to convince Winston Churchill (Tim Hudson, chomping one cigar after another) to back his cause. Torn between his love of country and family, as well as his obligations as a military officer — the Vichy regime sentenced de Gaulle to four years in prison for deserting his command — the General eventually finds his stride in the famous Appeal of June 18, a speech he gave on BBC radio that would pave the way for the Resistance.
Le Bomin, who previously made the WWII pic Our Patriots (2017), covers de Gaulle’s finest hours with a certain attention to period detail and all the creativity of a fifth grader writing a book report. Everything feels awfully familiar, even if none of this has ever been shown in a movie before, because the director’s de facto method is to bombard us with clichés in nearly every scene.
Thus, when de Gaulle is home in the countryside, he’s seen walking through sun-dappled fields, his fingers caressing the tall grass like a Terrence Malick character basking in the magic hour. And when he’s debating with Reynaud and the other politicians, it’s in a shadowy room at the Elysées Palace where everyone so deliberately speaks their mind it all sounds like bad community theater. Perhaps the only real flight of fancy is a sequence where the Maréchal Pétain (Philippe Laudenbach), future Vichy leader and ally of Adolf Hitler, is seen plotting against Reynaud while vigorously pissing into a urinal.
Meanwhile, Yvonne and her family’s flight from the Germans lacks any suspense whatsoever, probably because Yvonne is such a half-baked character herself. Early on she’s shown either swooningly reading her husband’s letters or dreamily staring at his photos, as if her sole purpose in life is to run the Charles de Gaulle fanclub while her husband fights the good fight at the office.
In one ridiculous sequence that’s meant to reveal how evil Nazis are in her mind, Yvonne has a nightmare where SS officers stage a slow-motion home invasion, acting out a scene that could have been ripped from Visconti’s The Damned as they drink all the wine from the cellar and manhandle Yvonne’s older daughter, Elisabeth (Lucie Rouxel). Call it creative license or a severe lack of imagination.
Compared to, say, the somewhat overwrought if engrossing Churchill wartime saga Darkest Hour, Le Bomin is incapable of giving his protagonists any sort of personality beyond what’s been written in the textbooks and history books. They appear as pure functionary bodies accomplishing what they’re famous for, not as living beings filled with thoughts, doubts, anxieties, compulsions and, why not, humor. (Despite his distant and arrogant airs, de Gaulle was known for his sharp verbal wit.)
Wilson — who’s a talented and versatile actor, although he’s best perhaps known internationally for hamming it up in the two Matrix sequels — does an impeccable imitation of the General, from his ironing board posture to his narrow eyes to his careful and controlled way of speaking, as if he’s constantly weighing the effect his words will have both on his listeners and his own destiny. The scene where Wilson recites the famous June 18 speech is perfectly rendered by the actor, but also perfectly dull because it’s captured so deliberatly, with triumphant music (courtesy of Romain Trouillet) blaring in the background and overtly dramatic red lighting (courtesy of cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou) used to underscore the urgency of the situation.
When François Truffaut criticized the Gallic “tradition of quality” in his bombshell piece “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” he could have been referring to something like De Gaulle — although Le Bomin’s movie doesn’t even feature the kind of showy psychological realism that Truffaut so hated. That essay was published in 1954, a few years before de Gaulle took office and became France’s most notorious modern leader, at once celebrated by loyalists and reviled by a swath of the public, especially during the Algerian War and the May ’68 uprisings.
If French cinema has made plenty of progress since the early ’50s, De Gaulle represents not so much a step backwards as a step in the wrong direction. The film compensates for the fact that few Gallic politicians have ever been portrayed onscreen — for various reasons, including, perhaps, that French productions often receive funding from the French goverment — but does it with little originaility or flair or, to take a very Gaullian trait, tact. It makes the mistake of trying to somehow record history in the present rather than incarnating it anew, and the result is a dead movie on a dead president.
Production companies: Vertigo Productions, Les Films de la Baleine
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Isabelle Carré, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Mouchet, Pierre Hancisse, Sophie Quinton, Gilles Cohen, Jean Laurent, Tim Hudson, Philippe Laudenbach
Director: Gabriel Le Bomin
Screenwriters: Gabriel Le Bomin, Valérie Ranson-Enguiale
Producers: Farid Lahouassa, Aïssa Djabri
Executive producer: Denis Penot
Director of photography: Jean-Marie Dreujou
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuillé
Costume designers: Anaïs Romand, Sergio Ballo
Editor: Bertrand Collard
Composer: Romain Trouillet
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Sales: SND Groupe M6
In French, English