Heroes of the Civil Service: An Interview with Antonin Baudry
April 2, 2014 | by Susannah Hunnewell
In 2010, a graphic novel, Quai D’Orsay, was published in France under a pseudonym, causing a quiet sensation. Set in, of all places, the Foreign Ministry, Quai D’Orsay starred a young speechwriter frantically learning on the job—the novel featured recognizable public figures, including the foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who famously said non to the war in Iraq.
In France, graphic novels, or comic books (bandes dessinées), are a revered venue for pointed satire. The bestseller’s author, it turned out, was a wunderkind former staffer for Villepin named Antonin Baudry. A man of varied passions—board games, Metallica, Greek philosophy—Baudry is currently the French Cultural Counselor for the U.S. Last fall, he adapted the graphic novel for the big screen. The resulting film, The Minister, became an instant hit in France, earning the rookie screenwriter a nomination for a César, the French Oscar. The Minister is now showing (under the title The French Minister) at select theaters in the U.S., including the IFC Center, in New York; the graphic novel is available in English under the title Weapons of Mass Diplomacy.
Sitting in his cavernous office in the French embassy, overlooking Central Park, the informal diplomat says he would love to try another graphic novel “on globalism, set in the Middle Ages.”
Both in the graphic novel and the movie, you make it seem as if you hadn’t the slightest qualification to write speeches for the foreign minister. Is that true?
Yes. I didn’t have the background that all the people there had at all. I had never met a politician before. I had never met a diplomat. What happened was that Dominique de Villepin was looking for young people from different universes to write for him. He heard through a mutual friend that I had done master’s theses in math and literature, and he wanted to meet me. I totally panicked. I said to my friend, Why did you do this to me? I had to buy a suit. The minister received me at the Quai D’Orsay, and it was just like being hypnotized. He explained a lot of things to me and everything seemed clear, and then when I left, I couldn’t remember a thing. And there was this time pressure. He said I had to answer within twenty-four hours because we were possibly on the eve of a Third World War. I was twenty-six, and I thought, Why not? I’d done academic writing and I knew I wanted to write novels. I accepted the job because I think many writers have no experience of the world. I once worked for the sanitation department in Berlin, cleaning the streets at five in the morning. I loved it for the same reason—it gave me the chance to observe another universe instead of staying in my room, contemplating myself.
The minister is a very endearing character. Can you describe the man who inspired him?
I love de Villepin. We’re still friends. I have a lot of admiration and tenderness for him. He made me suffer a lot, but I was a consenting victim. He’s a very, very smart person who has some madness in him. And he’s aware of it—he plays with it, he believes it’s necessary. And I agree. If he weren’t as he was, France wouldn’t have said, Non, we won’t participate in the Iraq War. The process leading up to that was chaotic and very strange, but the decisions, and the results, were rational. That’s what I wanted to show in the book and in the film—how irrational processes can lead to rational results. It’s a Hegelian story. As Hegel says, the owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk. It represents wisdom, which appears only after the day is done. You can’t understand the logic of the process, but there is one.
Did speechwriting teach you anything useful about fiction writing?
It taught me a lot as a writer. It made me realize that you never know exactly who is writing. It’s a mix of voices in your head, and you have to hear them all and choose, somehow. Each word is a battlefield.
How was it different, speechwriting?
Well, it’s not writing. It’s understanding a situation, what words it needs. It’s collecting a lot of information about what’s really at stake. And then a major part of the work is trying to understand how everyone will interpret what you write. The Americans will interpret these words in such a way, the Iraqis will interpret them differently, and so will the British. You’re talking on different levels to different people.
One of the painful things to watch in the movie is how the young speechwriter’s hours of work are dismissed with one word, and he has to start all over.
Yes, the first time, it’s really surprising, and you’re disappointed, but then it becomes part of the game. You’re interacting with so many people, taking into account so many different points of view and egos. It’s like being in a washing machine. There is no rational way to deal with it, to be honest. But the idea that you can write something, work really hard on it, and then cast a cold eye on it, throw it away, and start from scratch—and consider that part of the normal course of things—is useful for any writer.
What made you decide to tell this story as a graphic novel?
I had the feeling that many of the things I wanted to say were better conveyed visually. The same interactions that would appear heavy-handed in writing could be described elegantly with a single image. What I tried to do in the graphic novel was not to imitate the people it’s based on but to develop an equivalent for each. For example, the minister has this big nose with a narrow head and weird hair. It’s really not Villepin at all. But it’s an equivalent—people recognize him somehow.
How was writing for a graphic novel different from writing for a film?
When I worked on the comic book, I was standing right next to the artist. At the end of the day, I could really see what I’d done—you have immediate feedback, and you can change things. When you’re making a film, by the time you discover the visual results of the decisions you’ve made as a writer, it’s totally too late to change them. As a screenwriter, you have to be very experienced to understand the onscreen consequences of what you’re writing.
When the graphic novel first came out, you went under a pseudonym, Abel Lanzac. I found an interview from your incognito period. All you revealed was that your wife was the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess and that you didn’t like roasted endives.
I showed the storyboard to one of people who inspired the book, the minister’s chief of staff. He laughed a lot and said there was no problem with publishing it at all. His one piece of advice was to take a pen name so I could write whatever I wanted and wouldn’t have to ask for authorization as a diplomat. But it didn’t work, because my publisher sent out a press release, which said, “This book is by Abel Lanzac (pseudonym).” If you indicate that it’s a pseudonym, it doesn’t work. So I decided to drop the pen name.
Speaking of the chief of staff—who appears in the book and film—does such a perfect human being really exist?
Yes. Pierre Vimont. He was unbelievable. That was a true discovery for me—the genuine public servant, totally dedicated to the state and the common interest. He worked so hard. He would leave the office at three in the morning and be back at seven. He was always under extreme pressure, which he never, ever transmitted onto others. He was so calm, so kind, and so smart. Two things were impossible with him. One was preceding anyone through a doorway. I tried every way I could think of to let him go first. The second thing was to give him a piece of information he didn’t already have. That was impossible. I don’t know how he did it. One night I was on night duty at the ministry. You’re the one who monitors all the information coming in and you have to decide what’s important, whether you have to wake someone at night. There was a negotiation about a cease-fire between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I received a telegram at two A.M. that said the deal was done. I immediately rushed into his office to tell him. And he said, Yes, I know. It’s great news. I thought, How does he know? He’s not on the phone … He was always like that. He always just knew. He’s a hero to me.
That was the radical suggestion of the book and the film. Not only were these civil servants not jerks, but they were heroic.
Totally. French people are always saying that civil servants don’t work and are always on holiday. France is a country that criticizes a lot, which is a great cultural tradition. But I know so many people in government who work hard all their days, sacrificing their personal lives. I’m happy they’re in charge. I wanted to show that. It’s a satire, but a very tender one.
The other supporting character who steals the show is Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher—from the fifth century B.C.
My wife is a specialist of Heraclitus. She teaches at Columbia. Her field is the representation of the Greek philosophers in seventeenth-century Spanish literature. So Heraclitus and Democritus are living on our sofa. I like this idea that you have two main attitudes in life—Heraclitus, the one who cries, and Democritus, the one who laughs. If you don’t try to be too intellectual, those are the two possibilities you have when you’re facing situations. Laugh or cry. That’s why I wanted him as part of the show. Not only for his comments about life, but also for his distance from the world. He’s always represented in his garden, his back to the city, looking out from a distance and crying because it’s too sad to see how men live their lives.
What was it like to hear Villepin give the speech you worked on, defying the United States over the Iraq War?
In France, everybody pretends now that we were against this war, but it’s not true at all. The vast majority of the French elite, including the left-wing intellectuals, were trying to convince Villepin to follow Bush. When I heard him deliver his speech, I cried. I knew it was important. But I also knew that it wouldn’t stop the war. Those are the limits of speeches, the limits of debate, the limits of the pursuit of truth.
Getting back to heroic civil servants, I hear you saved the French embassy in New York from being sold.
I made a counter offer, which was to open it to the public with the specific idea of having a French bookshop with fifteen thousand books. It’s a not-for-profit. It’s not even going to look like a retail place—it’s designed to look like a grand private library. No commercial displays or aggressive lighting. You can buy books, but you can also just sit on the sofa and read them. Part of the concept is to create a French-American venue for international debate, to invite the most original writers in the U.S. and Europe to discuss art and finance and politics. We’re going to have a literary festival curated by Greil Marcus.
It’s the last building Stanford White designed. Actually, he was shot dead by a jealous husband while he was working on it. It was a gift from Colonel Whitney to his nephew, who was getting married. The Whitney family lived there for thirty years, then sold it to an German actress. Then Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French ethnologist, was appointed by General de Gaulle as the first cultural counselor to the U.S. He saw the building and convinced France to buy it.
Is it true there’s a Michelangelo statue in the lobby?
Yes. Stanford White went to Italy to get the marble for the building, and he came back with this statue and stuck it in the lobby. Everyone thought it was just some statue. They put their ashtrays on it. Then one day, twelve years ago, the director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University came by and asked about it. The staff thought it probably came from the streets of Florence, but the director said, Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s a Michelangelo. She paid for a survey by the Met. Their verdict was that there’s a ninety-five percent chance that it’s Michelangelo. There was a huge panic in the French administration, who wondered how they were going to insure it.
Without causing a diplomatic incident, do you have any observations to make about the natives here?
I love them.
I’ve never met so many interesting, unique, and intense people as I have during my travels across the United States. Here, it’s much more common that people do a lot of things in one single life. It’s less common in France—people go in a single direction very deeply there.
Go on. What are some of our other strengths?
Your self-confidence. And your belief that everything is possible, which is beautiful.
Do you really recite Descartes every night?
Descartes, for me, is an American. He’s supposed to be so French. We tend to reduce him to Cartesianism, with its boring rational approach. It’s not that. He also thinks everything is possible. If you can think it, you can do it. You just have to make good decisions. If you’re lost in the forest, what do you do? He says just choose a direction and stick to it. I think that’s a very American way of thinking. We live in a world of insanity, but let’s not procrastinate. Let’s make a decision, the most educated one we can make, and let’s go for it. That is very American. That is not so French! Descartes is the secret conduit between the French and American spirits.