Lambert Wilson, a veteran French character actor with “Sahara” and “The Matrix” franchise credits, looks and sounds enough like the World War II leader and later French president Charles de Gaulle that no strain shows as he acts out the man’s pride, hauteur and zealous patriotism in “De Gaulle,” a workmanlike and flattering bio-pic of the French leader’s rise to moment in 1940, during the fall of France.
Writer-director Gabriel Bomin (“Our Patriots”) may get bogged down in dates, de Gaulle’s family’s struggle to escape a collapsing France, in endless cabinet meetings and the military and political decisions and intrigues that let “the largest army in the world” surrender within a month of Germany’s May 1940 invasion. But there’s French WWII history and de Gaulle biography that few outside France know well. Bomin cast a great de Gaulle and a pretty good Winston Churchill (Tim Hudson) for this French “Darkest Hour” film biography.
Bomin saves the most poignant moments for the finale, as he should. And as somber and grim as this picture can be — and any movie about this debacle is too bloody and too infuriating for farce, he drops a lone joke in here that might play as tragedy in France, but not beyond the Bay of Biscay.
De Gaulle, given modest rooms in London as he tries to make the case (in French with English subtitles) to the British and his countrymen left behind back home that “this is a world war” and thus, isn’t over just because Paris has capitulated, searches the cupboard and finds only a particularly English “delicacy.”
So he sits and types out his first speech, via the BBC to now “occupied” France, a Frenchman eating Libby’s corned beef from a can.
It’s a film of high rhetoric and resigned defeatism, of sad silences in scenes where characters pass over a road covered with corpses that once were refugees fleeing the German advance, and their cars and horses. They were strafed and massacred by German aircraft, which dominated the air over France.
And for all the rough edges it rubs off a Biblically-prideful, disdainfully-arrogant man, we get plenty of glimpses of the de Gaulle that the rest of the world remembers — tetchy, egocentric, tall, lean and with a birdlike stiffness in public.
We meet Col. de Gaulle in battle, at Montcornet where his forces have turned back the German onslaught and he is calling in for the air and artillery support that would allow him to capitalize and roll back this section of the advance and stymie the Germans on their encircling drive on Paris.
He lectures subordinates about his tactics, the “mechanical” new way of war, and every chance he gets from that day until the fall of France, he brings up the fact that “I told you so” to higher ups when it came to how “the next war” would be fought. He knew.
Bomin’s film skips freely back and forth in time and setting, from his family’s last big gathering before the collapse to earlier years when he and beloved wife Yvonne (Isabelle Carré) first learned their youngest daughter Anne (Clémence Hittin) was “vulnerable (handicapped) and unfit for the world.”
Montcornet earned De Gaulle a swift promotion to Brigadier General to “give you the authority to influence events,” French president Reynaud (Olivier Gourmet) reassures him.
Because aged, cynical and ultra-conservative Marshal Philippe Pétain (Philippe Laudenbach) hero of World War I, the man who lobbied for the construction of the folly that was the Maginot Line, has been invited into the cabinet to preach surrender and call this “a political defeat,” blaming others for the hidebound “re-fight the last war” thinking he’d saddled the country with post WWI.
Laudenbach’s Pétain makes the man’s case for him — “appeasement” was the practice of French governments (and Neville Chamberlain’s British conservatives) and did as much to bring about the French collapse as anything else. But he’s also a hissable villain, which is the way history truly remembers the “marechal.”
De Gaulle has both a seat at the table and a voice in these meetings, but even he sees the “call for talks” and “give up” tide turning. Sent to beg for more British help, he riles Churchill before the new prime minister, speaking French, waxes lyrical about the blood and history the two countries share that makes them “inseparable.”
Churchill would be the one to sign off on giving the new general, once de Gaulle flees a collapsed France, airtime on the BBC.
“The French must hear another voice,” De Gaulle argues.
“Yours?” Churchill smirks.
The script’s choppy structure works against it up until the third act, when De Gaulle must sneak out of the country and his family is left on their own, told to flee but not having any idea where the paterfamilias has landed and de Gaulle frantically lobbying Britain to allow him to continue the fight as he’s worried sick about the wife and children he left behind.
But Wilson shines, strolling confidently through the first scenes, insistent in positioning himself as “He who won’t accept defeat” in the eyes of the British, and later his own people.
It’s a terrific performance and it makes this overdue film depiction of the most important French figure since Napoleon worth watching, even if it burnishes his image more than a non-French production ever would.
Rating: unrated, scenes of combat violence
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Isabelle Carré, Tim Hudson, Olivier Gourmet and
Credits: Scripted and directed by Gabriel Le Bomin. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:49