De Gaulle

Lambert Wilson in De Gaulle. Image courtesy Unifrance

M, 109 minutes 

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The familiar lofty figure taking the salute in his traditional French army cap, the kepi. The ramrod posture and the little moustache. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during the Second World War, was distinctive in many ways.

In this new film about the wartime leader-then-president during crucial periods of French history, writer-director Gabriel Le Bromin focusses on the several months of de Gaulle’s life before he shot to prominence. Although the expansive film title suggests a whole lot more, it covers only April to June 1940.

De Gaulle might at least be pleased that French actor Lambert Wilson (recognizable to many as Merovingian from The Matrix) plays him here

But what a few months they were. When the fate of France hung in the balance as its government was weighing up whether to fight on against the invading German forces or accept defeat. This turning point is the focus.

It is curious that despite his historical significance, Charles de Gaulle has made few appearances in cinema, let alone had movies made about him. Why is this so?

The great man might at least be pleased that French actor Lambert Wilson (once considered for James Bond, and recognizable to many as Merovingian from The Matrix series) plays him here. Lambert is, for a start, almost as lofty as de Gaulle, who was 1.96-centimetres tall.

British filmmakers haven’t been as cautious, or reserved as the French about depicting their national wartime hero

Winston Churchill, de Gaulle’s unlikely ally across the Channel, has made many more movie appearances. We saw him only recently in Darkest Hour and Churchill. British filmmakers haven’t been as cautious, or as reserved as the French about depicting their national wartime hero.

Isabelle Carre and Lambert Wilson in De Gaulle. Image courtesy Unifrance

Le Bromin’s film opens on the family home in the country. De Gaulle, army officer and government minister, is alone with his wife, Yvonne, played here with dignity and reserve by Isabelle Carré.

No one could surely complain about married love on screen, but de Gaulle had a reputation for sangfroid, pride, formality and a withering wit. The film particularly seems concerned to soften the formidable persona that de Gaulle presented to the world.

He apparently was a devoted husband and family man, with three children, two young adults and a youngster with Down’s Syndrome. Little Anne is sensitively played by Clemence Hittin. The dried flower albums she makes for her beloved papa figure prominently.

The point, of course, of the idyllic opening scenes is a suitable setting for presenting the horrors of war. The sudden, rapid onset of hostilities during April and May 1940 is especially powerful in contrast with the opening scenes at the family home in late spring.

The rural home and its occupants are photographed in a romantic miasma of golden sunlight, then rent asunder as German aircraft begin bombing raids. Planes are strafing the roads to stop French civilians fleeing to safer ground.

By this time, de Gaulle had already left and stayed on in London after one of his numerous visits to negotiate with Churchill (played here by Tim Hudson) on behalf of the French government.

When de Gaulle decides to quit the capitulating French government, Yvonne and the children eventually join the exodus too. They manage to reach Brest in Brittany and board the last boat leaving the port before the arrival of German forces.

 It’s the scenes behind the military action that are the most compelling

While German planes were sinking ships trying to cross the Channel there was no guarantee they would make it. These scenes are well staged, tense and powerful.

However, it is the scenes behind the military action that are the most compelling. Where French government officials argued the case before Petain signed an armistice. And where de Gaulle and Churchill, two leaders who thought big, met in London for negotiations. Talks in which they both slipped easily between English and French.

It is fascinating to watch these debates. Between those who argued that making peace with Germany would end the carnage, and those like de Gaulle who were opposed to what they saw as defeatism. These scenes are the best thing about the movie, followed by Lambert’s performance.

Le Bromin collaborated on the screenplay with Valerie Ranson-Enguiale. Le Bromin’s filmography suggests a particular interest in French wartime history, but I suppose there will be the inevitable debate about elisions and historical accuracy.

De Gaulle ends when, thanks to Churchill and the BBC, the general delivers his famous appeal to the French people invoking liberty and national honour. It is fascinating to see these two giants of recent modern history creatively re-imagined, in this thoughtful and engrossing drama.

First published in the Canberra Times 8 May 2021