French patriotism on the big screen in this celebration of the former French president.
With the need to strike a careful balance between entertainment and respect for the subject matter without coming off as trite, patriotic films aren’t the easiest thing to make. Yet with Gabriel Le Bomin’s De Gaulle, the biopic seems to have captured a riveting image of the former French president’s courage and elevates his status as a leader through cinema.
Set in May 1940, as the war is on the brink of escalating and the Germans are en route to Paris, the French army is in state of disarray, with the government considers accepting defeat. General Charles De Gaulle (Lambert Wilson) however, has other plans in mind, choosing instead to resist than surrender. In watching this performance onscreen, we are reminded of the French national anthem, and its never say die attitude. Throughout the film, De Gaulle is constantly speaking his mind, to the extent that a lieutenant even comes up to him at one point and tells him to have his words recorded and broadcast to boost French morale. Recording it in the fields against a brilliant backdrop, filled with solace and strength, even as a non-French person, one feels the gusto and patriotism emanating from Wilson’s performance. There are times De Gaulle even has to persuade the higher-ups into action, showcasing how a war is not simply about military might, but to a degree, is based on charisma and winning the hearts and minds of one’s own countrymen.
From the opening scenes of the family partaking in holy communion together at church, to intimate scenes of the love he had for his wife, beyond his wartime exploits, De Gaulle is also determined to showcase the man’s love for his family, often putting them first, even before his own life. In portraying how many families were forced to flee their homes in the city due to the war, it was clear how traumatising this was for them, with De Gaulle’s wife Yvonne (Isabelle Carré) clearly unwilling to leave home behind as they lock up the doors and shut the grilles. As they drive past those walking on foot, dragging carts of their belongings en route to safety, it’s made clear how disruptive war is, uprooting lives and traumatising families.
De Gaulle is also portrayed as a loving and accepting father, shown through his relationship with his daughter Anne (Clémence Hittin, who, like Anne, was also born with Down’s Syndrome, in an exemplary display of diverse casting). The film tracks De Gaulle’s struggle as a parent, and his own fears of being unable to care for her when she’s first diagnosed. At the same time, it traces his determination to not let it get in the way of his love for her, carrying on and encouraging her to pursue her dreams. Actress Clémence Hittin does well in this role, and gives a memorable performance as she shows off both the strength and innocence of her character.
Perhaps a highlight of the film would also be the friendship between De Gaulle and Churchill (Tim Hudson), and how their respective ideals of democracy and liberty for their respective countries coincided. Towards the end of the film, De Gaulle is given four minutes to speak on the BBC, and his words flow strong, defiant yet poetic, and displaying the French perseverance and resilience amidst the war, encapsulating who he is as a person, and firm in his belief that love and family overcomes all. As much as we’re aware of how it’s a film explicitly meant to further aggrandise and cement De Gaulle’s status as a hero of French history, it’s a film that succeeds at it, and one the French can be proud of.