Money and Market Reign Supreme

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Review of 'The Last Mitterrand', director Robert Guédiguian

Not for nothing was François Mitterrand, socialist president of France between 1981 and 1995, known as the sphinx. His personal and public life remained, until very near the end of his life, inscrutable. It was only after Mitterrand's death from prostate cancer in early 1996 (the illness had been a secret) that aspects of his early political life became a matter of acute controversy, following the sensational publication of his memoirs, edited from interviews by the journalist Georges-Marc Benamou.

Mitterrand had been a junior member of the collaborationist Vichy government under General Pétain, but had secretly joined de Gaulle's resistance movement and played an important role at the liberation in 1944. Pétain and other leading collaborators were tried after the war, but many others were cleared.

This remains one of the murkiest episodes in modern French politics, with many unanswered questions about how collaborators escaped prosecution. One question that Benamou's memoirs focused on was Mitterrand's relationship with the notorious Vichy police chief, René Bousquet. Bousquet had played a major role in the round-up and detention of Jews in the Vél d'Hiv sports stadium in Paris, prior to their being deported to the death camps in Nazi Germany. Despite this he was cleared after the war and escaped prosecution till 1993, only to be assassinated just before his trial.

This film is freely based on Benamou's book and recreates in semi-fictional form the relationship between the young journalist, here called Antoine Moreau, and the dying president. Mitterrand resists every pressure from Antoine to clarify the confusion about when precisely he joined the Resistance and how close his relationship with Bousquet was. Instead he draws Antoine into the world of his fears, and his sense of French culture. The marble images of dead monarchs obsess him, as does the desire to be buried at the centre of France.

The relationship between the two takes on a personal intensity. Antoine is drawn, partly against his will, partly through sheer fascination with Mitterrand's personality, into the president's close circle of confidants. He goes around France with him; he eats with him; he attends his birthday meal. He even finds himself helping the weakened Mitterrand to get out of his bath. The semi-filial relationship absorbs his feelings - at the expense of his health and his relationship with his pregnant partner.

At stake, though, are not just his personal emotions. The relationship also dramatises a political conflict about the future of socialism. Mitterrand sees himself as belonging to a dying world where people dreamed of socialism. But not even the illusion will survive in the emerging epoch of globalisation, where money and the market reign supreme.

There remains for him only the 'practical' success of having outwitted his enemies (who regard him as a traitor to his bourgeois origins), of having 'reigned' longer than any other French ruler since Napoleon III. (Is this why he shies away from confronting his Vichyist past? If survival is the name of the game, then principle, particularly principle you regard as a necessary illusion, is expendable.)

Guédiguian, who is probably best known in Britain for his uplifting A la Place du Coeur, a tale of triumphant inter-racial love set in his native Marseilles, has made an intriguing film about Mitterrand's last days. He clearly takes the journalist's side. Antoine's resistance to globalisation, his refusal to see socialism as a dream that will die with its cynical manipulator, is a persistent theme throughout the film. In this new world where nothing but money and the market matter, Antoine answers Mitterrand, class struggle will be all the fiercer.

But it is Mitterrand who walks away with the film. This is not just because of the superb acting of veteran actor Michel Bouquet in the role of the dying president. Antoine is too caught up in the world he is investigating. He cannot resist the seductive enigma of the man, though intellectually he resists. And maybe, by setting the film almost entirely in the context of Mitterrand's own concerns (his appalling record in power goes unmentioned), the film cannot resist either and so fails to put flesh on the alternative Antoine believes in.