Bertrand Tavernier died in March this year, aged 79. Almost exactly a decade earlier, I sat down with the director in Paris to discuss his period drama The Princess of Montpelier, for the article below. It seemed typical of this charming and indefatigably enthusiastic filmmaker that a chat about a single film would feel like a moviemaking masterclass.
Bertrand Tavernier has always been a hard man to pin down. He’s made period films and contemporary ones, politically charged and whimsical ones, films with established stars and young unknowns. He’s made swashbucklers, science fiction (Death Watch), a policier, a jazz biopic (Round Midnight) and a film about the head teacher of a nursery school (It All Starts Today). His distaste for typecasting led him, when described as a “political filmmaker” after The Judge and the Assassin, to make the lyrical A Sunday in the Country. When I tell him that I never know what I’m going to get, from one film to the next, he replies with characteristic glee. “I want to put myself in that position, to never know where I will be. I love that.”
But while less of an auteur than the Cahier generation whom he followed (segueing from press agent and critic to fully-fledged director with The Watchmaker of St Paul in 1974), Tavernier’s work is certainly united by common themes and inclinations: political engagement, non-judgemental character study, naturalistic acting, dramatic verve allied to understated, graceful camerawork, and lashings of humour, often at its best when the plot is most bleak; just as the period films are infused with a modern sensibility, so he insists that his contemporary work is informed by his love of history.
“Dealing with history teaches you to be analytical and teaches you to find out what’s important,” he told an NFT audience in 1992, on the release of his French resistance drama Laissez-passer (above). “Not conventional history, but the history told by the new breed of historians that show that history is linked with fact, flesh, blood, passion. It’s not just about remembering dates, it’s about making the history live.”
He’s in period mode with The Princess of Montpensier, a film that has no shortage of flesh, blood and passion, and much absorbing detail. It’s based on the short novel by Madame de La Fayette, published in 1662 but set a century earlier, during the reign of Charles IX, a king best known for presiding over the turbulent Wars of Religion. The war is merely the backdrop to a crazy love quadrangle, at the centre of which is the 16-year-old Marie de Mézières.
Marie (Mélanie Thierry) is in love with the fiery Duke of Guise (known as ‘Scarface’ and with a habit of reopening his facial wounds in the course of every battle), but is forced to marry the Prince of Montpensier, to whom she is offered by her father along with some peacocks and a couple of hens, in the usual indelicate transaction. Soon the Prince’s best friend and mentor, the Count of Chabannes, also falls in love with the girl, as does the King’s brother, the Duke of Anjou. Tavernier follows his source’s focus on these lovers and their immature, passionate, potentially violent rivalries, alongside which the St Bartholomew Day Massacre seems like a trifling contretemps.
Any connection to Tavernier’s D’Artagnan’s Daughter (also co-scripted with his regular writer Jean Cosmos) ends with the swords and stately settings; where the earlier film was a tongue-in-cheek romp, this is an altogether more serious, dramatic and precise affair. Whether showing the embarrassing rituals of a noble wedding night, the backstage maneuvering of a royal ball, or the mud-splattered violence of a battlefield, Tavernier invests the tale with his trademark attention to detail.
When I mention his hero Michael Powell’s comment that one should never make a film unless one can learn something from it, Tavernier nods enthusiastically. “The pleasure is then communicating what I’ve discovered to the audience – things I find astonishing, or amusing. It’s like you are receiving people at home, and you want to amuse, to move them; if you tell the same jokes over and over, people become exhausted. The aim is always to give the impression that what you are showing is new, something you are discovering for the first time.”
Sometimes, the director’s research is integrated into character motivation, notably Chabannes’ desertion from the Huguenot cause. “I was trying to find something that would justify without words why someone would desert, and so put himself in great danger. Madame de La Fayette gives a very abstract reason, which would not work on film. So I asked the historian what were the three things considered as a crime during that war. And he said, destroying a plough, destroying a bread oven, and killing a pregnant woman.” One can guess which Tavernier chose.
Another discovery about the seventeenth century was that the wedding night in every noble family was a public affair. “Actually, the first penetration had to be public,” he elaborates, “because these families could only go to Rome to cancel the marriage if the girl was found not to be a virgin, or if the marriage had not been consummated.
“Suddenly I understood how so many royal wedding nights, which were a catastrophe, could provoke problems between countries. Louis XIII, the king of the Three Musketeers, could not do anything with his wife Anne for months – he never had the will to go back to the bedroom, and that created diplomatic problems between France and Spain, with even the threat of a new war. Louis XVI with Marie Antoinette was a disaster too. They spent several months before he could fuck her.”
Tavernier transforms this information into a wedding night scene that is striking not just for Marie’s humiliation, as the poor, naked girl is viewed by a dozen assistants, her husband and the two fathers (much how the actress herself might feel, exposed to cast and crew), but also its absurdity. Likewise, a terrific battle scene is informed by the discovery that soldiers in the period did not wear uniforms. “I asked the historian, how did they recognise each other? And he said, they didn’t. We assume now that 20 per cent of the casualties were killed by their own comrades. Knowing that helped me create that chaos in the battle.”
While the scene has evoked comparisons to Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Tavernier himself cites Kurosawa. “I was trying to find that barbarian quality you had in Kurosawa. We shot fast, with no marks, no rehearsal, in just two days. There was no CGI, practically everything was done with one camera, with great work from the operator, the American Chris Wise. My desire was to show that those young men, the Prince and Guise, could be brutal, violent, ruthless, but when the Prince returns he is unable to say to a young girl, “I love you”. And that moves me, that somebody can show off on the battlefield, but is paralysed in front of a girl.”
One connection with Welles, he suggests, was the need to make financial constraints work to his advantage. “Constraint forces you to be intelligent, to find something that is spectacular in the landscape, incorporating everything. We were very lucky, we had the rain, we had the mud – we lost about 30 pairs of shoes in the mud, we were glued to it, and that added a violence to the action. It was very exciting; apart from that the fact that I was never so cold in my life.” Most 70-year-olds would not have gone near the field in the first place.
Tavernier told the same NFT audience that “I am dubious about the idea of revisionism. I try to do a historical film as if it’s a contemporary subject that I am filming.” Here, he and Cosmos maintained the “twists in the plot” of their source, but changed the ending to make it less moralistic; Tavernier has more respect than the author for her heroine. “And of course I added some sex, which Madame De La Fayette was refusing, because she was writing in a puritan time, when they were putting fig leaves on statues. I needed to have a love scene, even if you don’t see anything, between Marie and Guise; you must have that.”
His instruction to another regular collaborator, composer Philippe Sarde, was that “I didn’t want any pseudo-16th century music. Although Philippe drew his inspiration from composers of the time, we ensured the orchestration was very modern, by using a lot of percussion – dynamic, with a lot of drive. We decided together: cello, bass, trombones percussionists, and three baroque instruments, but no violin, no lute, no piano. So the music sometimes sounds a little jazzy, like Charlie Mingus.”
When I suggest that the film has an energy and matter-of-factness that distinguishes it from so many costume dramas, he laughs. “Very often you watch the characters in a period film, thinking that they are old – even when they’re not – and you can’t escape the impression that it happened ‘a long time ago’. But no, for me, it’s happening today. I wanted to film these characters the way I filmed the cops in L.627 (above). I wanted the pace, the rhythm to be fast, I wanted to capture the energy of these young people, who are eager to love, eager to succeed, eager to fight. Anjou was a general at 18; you must have a lot of energy to achieve that.”
Not surprisingly, he refuses to see the young woman who inadvertently leads so many men to distraction as feckless or fatale. “Marie is torn between what is expected of her, on the one hand, and her passion and desire on the other. She refuses to be the submissive wife. She wants to educate herself and embrace the world. You can understand how she’s torn between respect, even love for her husband, and a sexual passion for Guise. Somebody said to me, ‘But it’s Lady Diana’. That’s it. For me, she’s a character who is very contemporary.”
This article first appeared in Sight and Sound in 2011.