Bertrand Saint-Jean (Olivier Gourmet), who serves as France’s minister of transportation in this resolutely realistic fiction written and directed by Pierre Schöller, is smart, hardworking, and generally loyal to those who are loyal to him. But he’s also a prick, often seeming more interested in protecting his image than the public interest, trampling the feelings of the people around him, and neglecting his wife and children even though he appears to love them. He multitasks his way through workdays that bleed deep into the night, fighting to maintain or improve his position in a world of secrets, betrayals, and intrigue. Judging by the wet dream he’s awakened from in the first scene, in which a naked woman crawls into the gaping mouth of a live alligator, he appears to get off on danger—but this thrill also takes a the toll on the man, as he becomes alternately beleaguered, self-loathing, and enraged at having been outmaneuvered by a political nemesis.
The nuanced nitty-gritty of the story’s politicking extends to the two traffic accidents that bookend the film, both presented at length and with a graphic level of detail rarely seen in movies not made by Kenneth Lonergan. While Saint-Jean experiences the first crash mainly as an opportunity to burnish his own image and present the state as a benevolent father figure, the second affects him profoundly, but a business-as-usual ending leaves the impression that his personal epiphany won’t soften his political positions.
The macro focus on Saint-Jean and his two closest advisors—Pauline (Zabou Breitman), the briskly brilliant press agent who follows him everywhere, and Gilles (the great Michel Blanc), the minister’s behind-the-scenes right-hand man—can make it seem at times as if what matters most about politics is how it affects the politicians involved. Schöller remains firmly agnostic on Saint-Jean’s main power struggle: Should private railroad stations be privatized or should they remain in the state’s hands? But he makes the stakes clear by salting in vivid scenes of furious citizens, who are protesting rising unemployment, dwindling benefits, and bureaucratic incompetence in what someone calls “this tired and tiring country.”
Schöller also introduces a foil to throw Saint-Jean’s hard-driving tendency toward insensitivity into sharp relief. Martin Kuypers (non-professional actor Sylvain Deblé, more than holding his own in a high-powered cast), an unemployed man who replaces Saint-Jean’s driver for a month while the regular driver is on paternity leave, slowly and unobtrusively moves to the center of the story, eventually becoming its conscience. Kuypers, whose long hair and sturdy workman’s clothes give him the air of a pacifically aging hippie, exudes a quiet self-possession that creates a welcome contrast to Saint-Jean’s talky self-importance.
In The Minister’s strongest sequence, a drunken Saint-Jean, having invited himself to Kuypers’s house without regard to the fact that he’s clearly intruding, gets dressed down by Kuypers’s wife, a hospital worker furious about the conditions she and her patients have to cope with. Saint-Jean may be able to laugh off her rage at the government’s ineptitude and apparent cluelessness, but that’s not so easy for the rest of us.