From Don King to Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, we in America are used to colorful, shamelessly self-promoting self-made men. So, it may be hard for us to understand the impact on French culture of a man named Bernard Tapie.
In a country where entrenched privilege ensures that people stay members of whatever social class they were born into, Tapie accomplished the nearly impossible. Abandoning his working class background to pursue show business dreams, Tapie dropped a stalled singing career to become a vastly successful businessman. Not long after, he became a national folk hero when he bought the Marseilles soccer team and led it to a European championship. Tapie then took on the realm of politics, becoming a minister in President Francois Mitterrand’s cabinet, and the only member of the center-left Socialist party willing to openly debate extreme-right demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen. Then, Tapie was accused of bribing opposing players to help throw a key match and his life came to a halt. The entrenched upper crust had their revenge on the overly ambitious Tapie…But, before you could translate “comeback kid” into Francaise, Tapie returned. This time as an actor.
It was in this last incarnation that filmmaker Marina Zenovich discovered Tapie. Seeing him in Claude Lelouch’s 1996 “Hommes, Femmes, Mode d’Emploi” and wowed by the former singer’s undeniable charisma, she became fascinated, or perhaps obsessed, by this fallen idol of French pop culture.
Executive produced by movie man-of-the-hour Steve Soderbergh, the film begins as Zenovich decides to make a documentary about Tapie, but finds that getting in touch with him is not quite as easy as opening the Paris phonebook. Lacking easy access to her subject or much command of French, director Zenovich takes an approach similar to Michæl Moore in “Roger and Me” and makes her own attempts to transcend language and other barriers to arrange an interview with Tapie the “plot” of her film.
Unfortunately, the strategy only gets in the way. “Roger and Me” was not really about GM President Roger Smith at all, but about the devastation wrought by an uncaring corporation on Moore’s hometown. The filmmaker’s vain efforts to reach Smith were a vivid illustration of the impregnable nature of powerful corporations — and Moore made sure they were funny. Zenovich’s dogged efforts to reach the affable but uninterested Tapie come off only as the noble attempts of a driven independent filmmaker to come up with some sort of a watchable film. They don’t really demonstrate anything other than the fact that French celebrities are just as hard to contact as U.S. luminaries. Sad to say, a more old-fashioned “A&E Biography” approach would probably have been more engaging.
Still, Zenovich was able to obtain a few illuminating interviews with figures around Tapie, including his son, several key journalists and filmmakers Claude Lelouch and Bob Swaim (who directed Tapie’s appearance in a music video starring France’s most popular rapper). During those stretches of the film that focus on Tapie, things stay interesting – even if we don’t learn very much about who Bernard Tapie, or Marina Zenovich, really is.