Taking on important historical figures in cinema can be fraught. Too much detail, and the film gets bogged down; too little and it’s dismissed as superficial. In recent years, a new vehicle has emerged – the snapshot biopic. Darkest Hour used it with Churchill, as did Hitchcock (2012) with, well, Hitchcock. These films take a brief period from the subject’s life as a cypher for their larger achievements. Director Gabriel Le Bomin uses the same technique in De Gaulle with considerable success.
Charles De Gaulle is possibly most familiar in Australia as the name of Paris’s main airport. But the real person was a complex, sometimes enigmatic character. He came to prominence as a general during World War II, going on to lead the Free French government-in-exile and the France itself after liberation. He shaped the peace in Europe as one of the “Big Four” – with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – and was a proponent of what would eventually become the EU. He was both Prime Minister and President of France, and shaped that country’s Fifth Republic. But his handling of the Algerian War was widely unpopular, though later historians have been kinder. His management of the May 1968 crisis was conversely popular at the time, but has suffered in historical analysis.
Despite that massive life, this film focuses on two weeks in May – June 1940. Nazi Germany has invaded France. Brash General de Gaulle (Lambert Wilson) wins a battle against the seemingly overwhelming enemy forces. Dithering from the brass in Paris means he can’t follow up on that victory. But it leads to a major promotion and a seat in the war cabinet. President Reynaud (Olivier Gourmet) is torn. On one side, de Gaulle and his allies want to resist the invaders. On the other, WWI hero Marshall Pétain (Philippe Laudenbach) wants to sue for peace, even though it will mean ceding control to the Germans.
Meanwhile, Yvonne de Gaulle (Isabelle Carré) is trying to keep the remainder of the family safe in the chaos. The de Gaulles’ youngest daughter Anne (Clémence Hittin) has Down’s syndrome and needs routine, but the family home is right in the path of the invasion. Reluctantly, they leave their home and head for an aunt’s house on the Brittany coast. But the horrors of war are never far behind.
Le Bomin does a neat job of juggling the two strands of the story. I found the scenes with the family the more compelling. While these scenes don’t convey much of historical significance, they personalise de Gaulle’s internal and external struggles. The scenes that deal with the war and diplomacy seemed stodgier to me, even though they’re necessary. The result though is a rather nuanced portrait of de Gaulle and his role in the events of 1940.
The screenplay from Le Bomin and Valérie Ranson-Enguiale seems to assume a level of knowledge about de Gaulle and his career. These assumptions might be valid in France, but I suspect Australian audiences may struggle with them. But, you never know, the film might spark people to seek out more information about the man and the era. The script however also largely overlooks the man’s flaws, so the film sometimes strays into hero worship.
Lambert Wilson (The Translators) gives a very fine central performance as de Gaulle. He tends to underplay the role, which I think was a wise choice. Isabelle Carré provides a nice counterpoint as the dutiful Yvonne. Olivier Gourmet (Monsieur Chocolat) seems suitably befuddled as Reynaud, while Philippe Laudenbach gruffly conveys the (later) collaborator and traitor Pétain. But Clémence Hittin just about steals the movie as Anne.
De Gaulle the movie provides a glimpse into de Gaulle the man. While this is far from a definitive historical account of the French leader, its inspirational tone and touches of brilliance should appeal to a broad audience.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television