There are some remarkable people who have changed the course of history through their actions, speeches, or influence, and French President Charles De Gaulle is no exception. However, you can be a phenomenally interesting person without a phenomenally interesting story, and that appears to be the case here in Gabriel Le Bomin's ('Fragments of Antonin') biopic 'De Gaulle'. Or at least, the short period of De Gaulle's life which Le Bomin chooses to focus on is fascinating in its historical significance, but unfortunately, it doesn't translate all that well to the screen.
'De Gaulle' takes place mostly from April 1940, until De Gaulle's exile into London around July 1940 - spoiler alert who anyone who is unfamiliar with this aspect of his life. There are large title cards that display the month and year as the film progresses, but as the whole picture takes place in a short amount of time, it's a bit of a bizarre afterthought.
'De Gaulle' portrays two parallel stories happening simultaneously. There is of course Charles (Lambert Wilson, 'The Matrix Reloaded'), as he navigates his way through the French political scene, and eventually England's. And then there is that of Charles' family as they journey through the French countryside as war refugees seeking salvation. Led by his wife Yvonne (Isabelle Carré, 'Romantics Anonymous'), she travels with her three children, including Anna who is disabled, never knowing if they will see their loving husband and father again - not knowing what anyone's future holds. De Gaulle is a proud military man, and after being promoted to the head table, he is disgusted by the way French politicians of the time wish to surrender to the fast-approaching Nazis. Believing he can pool enough of a resistance abroad, he flees France to garner support from Churchill (Tim Hudson), and sets off to create an allied Free France.
As time moves forward for General De Gaulle, he leaves behind a nation on their knees - but more importantly, his family. As the tensions of war rise, Charles is doing all he can to maintain the war efforts, while all along worrying about his family back home, wondering when - or indeed if - they will see each other again.
I have no issue with the way Le Bomin tries to tell this story. We as an audience have sat through countless uninspiring and uninventive biopics over the years, so for a director to try something different is both refreshing and welcomed. The problems of this film are not in the structure, but rather Le Bomin seems constrained by the story he's trying to tell. What is seemingly an artistic approach to an otherwise unmoving story results in a film that fails to challenge the audience, nor does it aspire much further research - a key personal indicator whether or not a biopic is making a mark.
It's hard to put my finger on exactly why 'De Gaulle' just doesn't work - but simply put, it lacks the sophistication or deft touch to accomplish what it's trying to achieve. There are a few flashback sequences featuring Anna, and while a passing comment from Charles lets us know that she is "his strength", the subtlety is amiss, so it ends up being more of a wayward plot point than anything more substantial. In terms of the final speech given by Charles, it just missed the inspiring or rousing energy you want from a scene of this nature. I should say that I am not French, and perhaps the patriotic and proud nation would be quick to dismiss my indifference, pointing out instead that this speech turned the tide of the war.
It lacks the sophistication or deft touch to accomplish what it's trying to achieve.
Alas, historically speaking, it really doesn't. And I think that's really my problem with this film; it's just not a very intriguing story. The refugee aspect from the family holds most of the tension and drama of the film, but alongside Charles' political ascendency and subsequent exile, it isn't given enough screen time to completely bring the audience in.
What 'De Gaulle' does offer is a very basic - and oftentimes, very sweet - look at this period of Charles' life. It's really nicely shot, and although the historical accuracies can be questioned, all in all, there is nothing inherently wrong or problematic found here, it just left me feeling generally unamused.