Bertrand Tavernier began his career in films writing reviews—but only for the money (if only). For nearly half a century, he’s been one of France’s most accomplished and prolific filmmakers, creating a body of work that includes Coup de TorchonA Sunday in the Country, and Round Midnight. He talked to us while he was in town to publicize his latest, The Princess of Montpensier.
One of the things you do really well is to capture a place—colonial French Africa, the jazz subcultures of New York and Paris in the 50s, the Louisiana bayou after Katrina. The same applies to The Princess of Montpensier, which makes 16th-century France feel totally authentic and lived-in. What appealed to you about that time and place?
What appealed to me first was the love story, the character of Marie. It seemed to me that her fight, the way she was trying to survive the fate that was imposed on her, was something very contemporary. And so was the character of Chabannes [a principled count who falls for Marie after becoming her tutor].
But it’s true that one of my passions has been to find the sense of time and place in all my films. I think filming is exploring. Michael Powell, who is my master, said that he made every film in his career because he wanted to learn. And when I start a film, I want to learn about a period, about a place or a milieu.
This movie was based on a short story that was written in the 1600s, so presumably there was some background in the story you could use to get the details right.
A historian told me, don’t forget that Madame de Lafayette wrote that short story in a very Puritanical time, in a moment in the 17th century when they were putting fig leaves on the statues, and she was writing about a century which was not Puritanical at all. So you must take out the fig leaves. My work was to find the flesh and the blood behind the sense of the emotion that she described.
For instance, she just in an elliptical way says that Marie, tourmenté by her parents, had to marry Phillipe de Montpensier. Tourmenté in 17th-century language means tortured. So that gave me two violent scenes where the father is beating her up.
How did you learn enough about the time and place to imagine those sorts of scenes?
I read a lot. I read many books, including Alexandre Dumas, which is full of very good ideas. I stole from Alexandre Dumas the recipe for the eels that I have during the dinner. I talked to an historian.
Recently there was a big article in a very important highbrow magazine, published by Gallimard, in which the best historian on World War I was saying there was a person in France who was 20 years ahead of every historian in the world and that person was Bertrand Tavernier. He said I twice approached subjects which had been completely forgotten by historians, for Life and Nothing But and Capitaine Conan, and got them completely right. And this film, The Princess of Montpensier, every historian of that period said the film was incredibly true.
For instance, Didier LaFleur, a French historian, said all those wedding nights [between royals] were public, because of the Vatican. No parties could call Rome to cancel the marriage, if it had been really proven that the girl was virgin and that the marriage had been consummated. The first penetration had to be public. So that gave me the idea for the first night they spend together, and of what goes after that scene. How are they going to talk? What is a young woman feeling in that situation? How is she reacting?
In the castle that I visited, I tried to understand how they were lighting each other, warming each other, how they were washing. I talked to the guy who was the conservator for the castle. He told me, in most films you see a palace always empty. He said it is totally untrue. Especially when you had a party, when you had a feast, the royal castle was crowded. There were no hotels at that time, so people were sleeping everywhere. They were sleeping in the lobbies, in the corridor, in the anteroom, they were sleeping on the floor. With their dogs, their family, the animals, everybody. So that gave me the idea for several shots where you see hundreds of people sleeping in a room. And he was talking about the way they were washing or not washing. He told me, in those days, people were washing their mouth with their own urine.
I thought for a moment of doing that, and then I thought it would create a repulsion in the audience, which is should not, because it was something very ordinary. So I decided not to incorporate it.
Once you’ve done all that research, how do you convey what you want to the set designers, the costume designers, the cinematographer, the actors?
By forgetting what I learned, and trying to get only the essentials of the scene. For instance, the first thing I said to the DP was, we must never light it like a period film. We must light it as a film noir. Contrary to what we see if many Hollywood films, the room will not be overlit. Half of it will always be dark—which was the case [in that period]. The torch was very expensive. They didn’t have to have the whole room lit. And, too, it’s better atmosphere—it’s more interesting.
For the costumes, I said we have to keep only the essence of the costume and forget about everything which looked too flashy, which will prevent the actors from moving, from being at ease. They must look so comfortable in the costume that you forget that they are in costume.
My obsession is to do everything as if the camera had been invented just two weeks before. It’s not filming something from the past; it’s filming the present. I’m always filming the present. I’m not filming a Renaissance table. I’m filming a table.
Your films always feel as if they are in the present tense, though they are usually set in the past.
Yes. Present tense. I think people become self-conscious when they are doing a period film. They want to express their own culture; they want to show that they have done their homework right. I want just to preserve the passion and the emotion, and forget everything which is superficial. Art is subtraction, I think.
You’ve always been interested in underdogs, and this film is no exception. It’s a very feminist story, about a young woman whose beauty is a source of power, to a degree, but is even more of a liability. She’s trying to overcome the limitations put on her, but there’s only so far she can go. When one of the men says she was a doe among them, and they competed with each other to hunt her down, that really sums up her story, for me. But I read that the film got booed some at Cannes—
No, it was never booed in Cannes. There were some reviews that were bad, but it got like 20 minutes of applause.
I didn’t want it to go to Cannes. I think Cannes is not good for period film. The great film by Jane Campion, Bright Star, it was totally ignored by that jury and by half of the French critics. And for me it’s one of the most beautiful historical films ever made in the history of cinema.
In Cannes, they are only interested in films about today.
I wondered whether there might be a little sexism in that reaction too. People thinking, “It’s just a film about a young woman’s love life. Who cares?”
I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe. I’m becoming now too old to try to analyze the reason behind some critical reaction. It’s a loss of time.
Some of my films, I‘ve had some of those reactions. They survived through that. They are still alive, 23 years, 30 years after being made. They are still seen, projected, shown in festivals. And very often the people who wrote the bad reviews have disappeared. They are dead, or their newspapers have disappeared.
I have survived the same way that I have survived some French politicians against whom I have fought. One especially, who assigned me to a suburb in Paris because I wanted to disobey a law about immigration. I went to the place he assigned me to, I made the film, and seven months later when I had finished the film I was still a filmmaker; he was no longer a minister. Heinh? Heinh? He had been fired from his job and I was still a filmmaker, so I won. [Laughs]