Last chance to see screening of the film 'Elysée' by Laurent Grasso
at Galerie Perrotin, Paris, until 14 January 2017
French artist Laurent Grasso has a fascination for the elusive places and instruments of power, inaccessible to ordinary citizens. In 2005, he obtained authorisation from the Vatican to film the funeral of Pope Jean-Paul II. A decade later, in January 2016, he filmed the office of French President François Hollande in the Elysées Palace in Paris, where the President resides.
“François Hollande accepted my request to make the film at once,” says Grasso, who was given artistic freedom to make the project without any political interference. Initially, the filming was slated for 16 November 2015. However, the date was postponed because of the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, in which 130 were killed. The film captures the palatial prestige that comes with holding the presidency and the weight of political issues that have consumed Hollande's tenure.
With a soundtrack by Nicolas Godin (one half of French electronic music duo Air), the 16-minute film leads us into the opulent Salon doré. Its style harks back to 1861, when it was decorated by Jean-Louis Godon for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, the Emperor of France. The palace was built in the early 18th century and since 1848, it has been the official residence of the President of France. All the presidents of the Fifth Republic, introduced in 1958, have used the Salon doré as their office, with the exception of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
The camera moves slowly throughout the room, along the lavish furnishings towards the Louis XV desk, created in the 18th century by cabinetmaker Charles Cressent and installed at the request of former president General de Gaulle. The magnificence of the interior is in juxtaposition with the security fears that permeate it. Lying on Hollande's desk, besides his letter-headed paper, are documents referring to the Paris attacks and a telephone with direct buttons to reach former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. A book on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper whose offices were attacked in January 2015, leaving 12 dead, is in the bookcase. The sense of responsibility and urgency is compelling.
“What was interesting is that several temporalities [of French presidential history] mix in the film,” says Grasso. “It's a place of a very strong mental projection. This office has been filmed enormously and the idea of an artistic, conceptual project is different. It's about an imaginary camera that captures the invisible, not in the sense of a document but in the sensation of an atmosphere.”
Grasso first met Hollande in July 2015 but the president was absent on the day of filming. “He had no control of the project and left me free, from beginning to end,” says Grasso. “I saw him afterwards and showed him the film – his reaction was positive. He was pleased to see his office, the place where he works, differently.”