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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 February, 2005, 15:20 GMT
Film explores Mitterrand enigma

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

The first film to deal with the life of the former French President Francois Mitterrand is released in cinemas in France on Wednesday.

The late French President Francois Mitterrand
Mr Mitterrand's legacy is still hotly debated in France

The last months of the life of the late Socialist president are portrayed in Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars - the title a reference to his long walks through the park during his dying days.

There were fears among Mr Mitterrand's friends and family that the film would focus on the scandals - both political and personal - of his era.

Even today, a trial is still going on of Mr Mitterrand's staff, accused of tapping the telephones of the late president's enemies, including journalists and celebrities.

Mitterrand was the last president in France to truly embody the nation
Robert Guediguian, director
But the film is a more complex and ultimately sympathetic portrayal of the controversial man who dominated French politics for decades.

Loved and loathed in equal measures, Mr Mitterrand was a difficult choice of subject for any film-maker, even almost a decade after his death in early 1996.

'Le Sphinx'

In some ways, it is a taboo-breaking film in a country which guards its politicians' private lives with vigour.

President Mitterrand guarded his more closely than most. Always an enigma, his nickname was "the Sphinx".

It was only after his death from prostate cancer that some of his secrets began to be revealed - including the existence of an illegitimate daughter.

Robert Guediguian, the film's Paris-based director, says Mr Mitterrand always fascinated him.

"I wanted to choose someone with enough complexity, enough grandeur, to be at the heart of my film.

"Mitterrand was the last president in France to truly embody the nation, because after him, globalisation meant it was no longer possible for one person to be the incarnation of a country in the same way. And the life he lived was worthy of the hero of a novel."

French actor Michel Bouquet plays Mr Mitterrand in his dying months, telling his life story to a young journalist, Antoine; trying to ensure that his own version of events was the one that endured.

Former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang
Mr Lang says Mr Mitterrand was an expression of France's diversity

Yet not all those who were close to Mr Mitterrand agree with the story as portrayed in the film, among them Jack Lang, Mr Mitterrand's faithful ally and minister of culture for 10 of the president's 14 years in power.

"From a cinematographic point of view it is a good film - but I prefer to understand it as a fiction, about an old man who is finishing his political life, and his own life, and in this sense it is very interesting," he says.

"But is it really Mitterrand? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

"Before he became president, he was probably one of the most hated men in France.

"Yet now, so many people recognise themselves through Mitterrand because he was an expression of the diversity of the country, this strange country, which is at the same time conservative and revolutionary, and of the left and of the right. Mitterrand is the perfect expression of this French complexity."

Wartime record

At the heart of the film is the question of Mr Mitterrand's wartime record, his degree of involvement with the collaborationist Vichy government, and his time in the French resistance.

The film is based on conversations between Mr Mitterrand in his final days and the journalist Georges-Marc Benamou, and his book Le Dernier Mitterrand (The Final Mitterrand).

"He embodied the French reality," he says. "General [Charles] De Gaulle was an idealistic view of France and Mitterrand was the realistic view of France."

Yet of the copious political or personal scandals of the Mitterrand era, there is little trace in the film - nor, thanks to French privacy laws, does it portray his family.

There is just one passing reference to the president's pride in his illegitimate daughter, Mazarine.

The director says Mazarine saw and liked the film, though Mr Mitterrand's widow Danielle preferred not to watch it, sending him a note to say she wanted to remember her husband as he was, not through his portrayal on screen.



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