Our most cinephilic francophiles head to the 2015 Melbourne French Film Festival. These are their reviews.
We continue our Melbourne French Film Festival Review Series with our guest blogger, Véronique, and her review of Volker Schlöndorff’s 2014 film Diplomatie (Diplomacy).
Paris, night of 24-25 August 1944. The Allies are at the gates and in the Hotel Meurice, General Dietrich von Choltitz, Governor of Great Paris, is making the final preparations to execute Hitler’s orders for the fate of the city : total destruction. Enters Raoul Nordling, Swedish consul in France and master negotiator, who will try for the rest of the night, and the rest of the movie, to convince the German General to disobey orders, for the first time in his career, and save Paris.
Diplomacy is a work of fiction. Whilst Nordling and Choltitz actually met several times during the last weeks of German occupation of Paris, no meeting took place between them that night. There is still speculation nowadays as to why Choltitz decided to disobey orders. As for the outcome, the audience knows it from the onset, as Paris is still standing proud. However, watching Diplomacy goes well beyond that factual evidence.
It was first a stage play by French playwright and scenarist Cyril Gély, who went on to co-sign the César-winning screen adaptation with director Volker Schlondorff. The latter needs no introduction to anyone old enough to remember The Tin Drum, Swann In Love, etc. Bringing a play to the big screen can be a risky business and much has been written about it by cinema critics and philosophers about what works and what doesn’t. Schlondorff pulls it off cleverly and magnificently.
Most of the action takes place in Choltitz’ hotel suite. Schlondorff uses it as a very confined setting with full stage-like effect, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere around the confrontation between Nordling and Choltitz, thus reinforcing the intensity of the situation. Whenever the film takes us briefly outside, it’s to show us archive footage of the liberation, pretty shots of Paris sights and monuments, or just a brief side development of the action taking place on the main stage.
The two main protagonists are played by AndréDussolier (Nordling) and Niels Arestrup (Choltitz), who were in the original theatre production and are taking their characters to the screen. Two of the finest French actors of their generation, they both unsuprisingly throw their full weight behind their respective performances and it is immensely enjoyable to watch them play cat and mouse throughout the film.
Their task is certainly helped by the intelligent and subtle dialogue, a thorough etude in the art of negotiation, from charm to blackmail (and in-between), but also a reflection on the values of obedience and moral duty as well as an acute observation of two men from different worlds and societies in full collision course.
Diplomacy has a lot going for it: classical but classy, tremendous acting, smart and captivating story. All this probably explains why, in the FFF session I attended, the cinema exploded in loud and enthusiastic applause as soon as the end credits started rolling.