Review: The Vanished President
- Jacques Gamblin and André Dussollier shine in Jean-Marc Peyrefitte’s feature debut, which brings attention to an often ignored part of political history with intelligence and comic vivacity
"History with a capital H is merciless. It often keeps only a mocking memory of the most poetic events and of the most subtle minds." Such is the destiny, in the collective memory, of Paul Deschanel, forever remembered as the French president who fell from a train in 1920 and was forced to step down due to psychological issues. But as is revealed in The Vanished President [+see also:
film profile], Jean-Marc Peyrefitte’s excellent feature debut which premiered at the 15th Angoulême Francophone Film Festival (FFA) (ahead of its French release on 7 September via Tandem and Orange Studio), the reality is quite different.
As is often the case in the rarefied air of the high political spheres, rivalries were at work. Paul Deschanel (Jacques Gamblin), an eloquent idealist for whom “the social question isn’t an economic problem, but a moral one” and who, ahead of his time, advocated for pacifism, women’s right to vote, the abolition of the death penalty, education and direct democracy by universal suffrage, very quickly bumped heads with reactionaries symbolised by one major figure: Georges Clémenceau (André Dussollier), nicknamed the Tiger, but also the Father of Victory at the end of World War I.
We therefore meet Deschanel in pyjamas and walking on train rails somewhere in the French provinces in the night between 23 and 24 May 1920, crossing paths with a kind gatekeeper on a draisine (who of course does not believe the man when he claims to be the President of the Republic) while the media is already announcing the disappearance of the statesman and ambitions of succession are intensifying in Paris. How did he get to that point?
We must go back in time to one year earlier, on 19 May 1919, when Council president Clémenceau makes Germany kneel by forcing it to accept the Versailles Treaty, which Deschanel, then a deputy and the president of the Foreign Affairs commission, believes will only feed the Germans’ bitterness and desire of revenge. Between the wily, contemptuous, domineering and acerbic Clémenceau, and the delicate, humanistic and lyrical Deschanel, the reaction is nevertheless one of total surprise when the latter of the two wins the presidential election (then handled by deputies and senators) on 19 January 1920, with the slogan “you won the war, let us win peace.” Despite the warnings from his predecessor Raymond Poincaré about the strict limits of the position (inaugurations, awarding of medals: “the main power of the President of the Republic is to pick the colour of the chrysanthemums… They won’t let you… Do not make waves”), Deschanel fully intends to revolutionise the system. But this passionate man is also a fragile one, and the Tiger is ready to bounce…
With pristine production values (production design by Jérémie Duchier and costumes by Isabelle Mathieu), a direction that dusts the historical varnish with very dynamic long takes orchestrated by Lubomir Bakchev and accompanied by Mathieu Lamboley’s score, The Vanished President finds a good balance between the pacing and tone of comedy (sometimes verging on the burlesque) and more “serious” foundations (with a script written by the director together with Marc Syrigas). Deftly bringing together archival black-and-white images that progressively get absorbed into the body of the story before turning to colour, Jean-Marc Peyrefitte’s film is a great success as educational as it is entertaining. A mix which owes a lot to its remarkable duo of lead actors, and one which also sketches out with great accuracy the nuances of the eternal battle between progressives and conservatives.
Produced by Dibona Films and Pan Européenne Production, co-produced by Orange Studio, Tandem, Flamme Film, Temps Noir as well as Belgium’s Wrong Men North, VOO/Be Tv, Proximus and Belga Productions, The Vanished President is sold internationally by Orange Studio.
(Translated from French)
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