Alan Porter reviews The Last Mitterrand
Francois Mitterand simultaneously thought of himself as the saviour of the French left and the “last great president in the line of De Gaulle”. While Robert Guédiguian’s film is very good on this enormous egotism, as well as the 1981-95 president’s role in the Vichy regime’s mass deportation of Jews, its criticism of Mitterand’s failure to deliver the “break with capitalism” promised at the 1971 Socialist Party Congress is somewhat less sharp.
The plot revolves around the young Antoine Moreau (based on a real writer, Georges-Marc Benamou) compiling a biography of Mitterrand in the President’s dying months. Mitterrand is unwilling to discuss the facts about his service in the Vichy government, arguing that he had joined the resistance in 1942, though Moreau believes that this had happened a year later. Oddly, the film never resolves the question. And it excuses Mitterrand from all charges of an anti-semitic past, on the grounds that he built a memorial to Holocaust victims.
But the idea that Mitterand was never an anti-semite is implausible — in December 1942 he wrote in the Vichy regime’s propaganda magazine that “If France doesn’t want to die in the mud, the last French people worthy of this name must declare a merciless war against all who, here or abroad, are preparing to open floodgates against it: Jews, Freemasons, Communists”.
Despite his megalomania, Mitterand is portrayed not entirely unfavourably. In a speech at a closed coalmine he talks at length about the need for workers to fight together, and attacks the poisonous effect of money on society just as rigourously as when he argued in 1971 that “big business, master of levers of economic and political command, remains enemy number one, with which there can be no possible compromise”
Throughout the film, Moreau does attacks his subject from the left, but by using the argument that Mitterrand shouldn’t have lost his dreams of changing society. In the film the President uses the clichéd retort that his experience of political manoeuvring has taught him better than to have illusions about socialism.
It’s far more plausible that Mitterand was simply an opportunist — indeed, Guédiguian, a former PCF member, does refer to the constant left/right movements of Mitterrand’s politics during a lengthy political career. Moreau’s leftist father-in-law despises this careerism, barking that “if he’s a socialist, I’m the Pope”.
The most engaging part of the film is the relationship between the young writer and Mitterand as he nears death. Although the president is rude and patronising to Moreau, they are clearly fond of each other, discussing women and literature together at length. The young writer is somewhat in awe of Mitterrand and his personality is an enigma to him — sometimes he is charming and avuncular, but most of the time vain and obsessed with being remembered. The portrayal of this complexity is what makes Guédiguian’s film such a triumph. Although at times weak in its criticism of the president, it is as a character study that The Last Mitterand is worth watching.