I'm not a page to be torn easily confessed a frail but smiling Mitterrand (Michel Bouquet) sitting on a bench park with his biographer Antoine (JalilLespert). The man was so close to death he could foresee his legacy. He knows he'll be remembered as the last great French leader... after De Gaulle of course.
There has always been an inferiority complex with De Gaulle driven by the public perception, because Mitterrand held himself in high esteem. Yet he knew he was dwarfed by De Gaulle whose "June 18's call" could never be equaled. There was an old French sketch explaining why Mitterrand wrote so many books in his life: because he needed to stand on their pile to match De Gaulle's height (ten inches taller). Another famous parody program portrayed him as a Kermit lookalike and his nickname was "God". It says a lot about his reputation, even more that Mitterrand was amused by the caricature.
And that's the general perception of Mitterrand inherited from his lifetime but maintained beyond the grave: an icy literate man capable of amiability with people he respected... and an eternal enigma. This image is prevalent all through the film and the César-winning performance of Michel Bouquet is a wonderful examination of a spirit resisting while the body's giving up. Mitterrand is a lucid man and he knows very well that the world changed and all the petty little inconveniences of his reign will not tarnish his legacy. People care for the big picture, on that level, he's got De Gaulle's aura. Still, the film doesn't deal with auras, but actions too.
It doesn't question Mitterrand's affair with women, his secret daughter and all the scandals that will flourish after his death, the film is an intimate portrait of a man who answers the questions of another man. If the questions involve some points that preoccupy the general opinion, they are still asked on a private level. There's no journalist, no footage of his TV apparitions (or a very few) and it all comes down to one question: how close was Mitterrand to some Vichy officials, Bousquet being the most notorious one. And even if his Resistance involvement isn't debatable, did that happen in 42 or 43? That's the main point of friction between Antoine and Mitterrand.
But that's also the leitmotif of the film, the little pebble (so to speak) in the shoe of Mitterrand's regal self-absorption, the last fuzzy aspects of his life on which Moreau demand clarifications, encouraged by a former Resistant. But this is Mitterrand's matter of discord, he hates talking about the war, which he refers to as a demon following him for fifty years. Maybe it's because he knows that he'd never be De Gaulle's match precisely because of that involvement or because he loves France so much he hates to see it associated with Vichy. We trust that he loves France more than himself, and that's the second reason.
If you watch a clip of one of his last interviews, when asked by a journalist whether France will make amends for what happened during World War II, Mitterrand dryly retorts that France has no excuses to make because France wasn't Vichy. In the film, he reminds Antoine that he built monuments in commemoration of the Jewish victims and was the first to say "we shall never forget", but people have conveniently forgotten his quote and constantly label him as a former collaborator. Now, why is the film so insistent on that part rather than Algeria or Rwanda?
Perhaps because Robert Guédiguian's film is driven by the same lucidity, that history is known by historians and people only remember the broad lines: De Gaulle was the man who restored France's honor, put an end to the Algerian War and created the Fifth Republic, Mitterrand was the last iconic President, the one who brought the left to power and who built Europe. His government reforms started in 1983 put a blow on the "socialist" dream, he "killed off" the communist party and the fall of the Berlin Wall opened a breech for liberalism, but Mitterrand knew his reputation wouldn't suffer from it, and that might explain his overall serenity and satisfaction, he's leaving the world "clean".
Is his conscience as clean? I think it comes to the question whether Deguedjian's film makes Mitterrand sympathetic or not. In fact, any man in his age would be sympathetic, mirroring that "Chinatown" quote about politicians becoming respectable when they last long enough, they have a sort of wisdom that only the passing of year can forge. Mitterrand know he's made mistakes, knows he won't be De Gaulle, but he's always been sincere and he's perhaps the closest man to De Gaulle a President will ever be. It's not megalomania but realism, he knows Europe will never bring patriots in power, only financiers.
It's strange how prophetically these lines resonate today, the film was made in 2005 but when he talked about finance, I was immediately reminded of Emmanuel Macron, a former banker from Rothschild (of all the banks) and now President of France. About France's involvement in Second World War, Macron firmly established that it was France's responsibility (Chirac nuanced by saying the French government), so you can tell there's more than a generation gap, it's a whole perception of France that has been affected by history. Some said 1989 was the end of history, maybe it was the end of history in its perception like a national journey.
Maybe that's what makes Mitterrand so close to De Gaulle, both had a certain idea of France. And given how low politics and media sunk, it's true Mitterrand was a class of his own and the film is a character study fitting his personality, it's cold, detached, intelligent, lucid and it has its heart-warming moment. If not objective, it is sincere about its material.