The Princess of Montpensier - Bertrand Tavernier interview
The cineaste speaks on his inspiration for returning to the past
In a career spanning four decades and some 27 films, the French director Bertrand Tavernier has often been drawn to historical subjects: think, for example, of his 17th century swashbuckler D’Artagnan’s Daughter, or his dramas set in the aftermath of World War One, Life and Nothing But and Capitaine Conan, or his sprawling account of the French film industry during the German Occupation in the 1940s, Laissez-Passer. With the intimate epic The Princess of Montpensier, the 70-year-old Tavernier has again returned to the past, adapting a 1662 novella by Madame de Lafayette.
Transposing the original material to a century earlier and the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion, the filmmaker tells the gripping story of a beautiful young heiress Marie (a radiant Mélanie Thierry), who is forced by her father into an arranged marriage and who is then pursued by various male suitors. This is an universe where women are treated as objects to be traded by men: as Marie tells a friend, who’s been ordered to marry Marie’s own father-in-law, ‘Our duty is to obey.’
It turned out to be a single phrase from de Lafayette’s concise prose - namely ‘ses parents la tourmentent (her parents tormented her)’ - that inspired Tavernier to make his adaptation. ‘I was talking to a historian’, he explains, speaking from Paris in his thickly accented English. ‘He said that in that period the word had the much stronger sense of torturing. They could whip or beat her if she refused, and send her to a convent for 10 years. Even though she was a noble woman, she had no more rights than if she was a girl in a fundamentalist Jewish, Islamic or Mormon family today. Suddenly I saw the light. In the first draft of the script she simply accepted the arranged marriage. That phrase changed my attitude to the characters. I fell in love with her because she fought back.’
One of the film’s most powerful scenes is the consummation of the marriage between Marie and her husband Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), an act witnessed by servants and representatives of both families. The fathers of the bride and groom actually examine the couple’s bloodstained sheets to ensure that the woman had indeed been a virgin. ‘I’d never seen that before in a film’, observes Tavernier. ‘Apparently the wedding night being public was a common practice, because none of the families could then complain to Rome about the marriage. Imagine being Marie and having to make love to somebody you barely know. She would never have been taught what to do, and it’s in front of other people.’
From the outset, the director was insistent that he wouldn’t attempt to explain the wider political events that impact upon his protagonists’ lives. The French Wars of Religion were a series of stop-start conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, stretching over nearly 40 years. ‘I wanted the audience to experience the period with the characters’, he continues. ‘You only see what they see. That’s why Marie’s ignorance about the wider world matches the audience’s ignorance. You don’t understand the plotting that led to the St Bartholomew massacre. You just see what Chabannes (superbly played by Lambert Wilson) sees, which is people being killed in the streets. There are no explanations in the film.’
Tavernier stresses that he didn’t specifically set out to make a film about intolerance and fundamentalism, but that these themes emerged organically from the characters’ experiences. He mentions that his own 10-year-old granddaughter attended one of the editing sessions and spontaneously made the comparison between the religious persecution depicted in the film and the round up of French Jews in 1942. ‘I never felt that I was dealing in the film with far away emotions’, he adds. ‘To me Marie’s situation felt totally modern. It could have been the story of Lady Diana.’
Shooting The Princess of Montpensier also took the cineaste Tavernier back to this childhood love of the Westerns of Raoul Walsh and Delmer Daves. ‘To film horses galloping across rugged landscapes made me feel like I was making a film like The Last Wagon’, he enthuses, even though he could only afford to hire a crane for the first day of shooting. ‘What I really don’t like are those period films, where none of the shots in the actions scenes last more than five seconds. You never know where the characters are in relation to the action.’
There are just two battle sequences in The Princess of Montpensier, yet they prove revealing about the temperaments of important male characters including Chabannes, Philippe, and her childhood lover Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). ‘A historian explained to me that in these battles often the soldiers didn’t have proper uniforms, so they couldn’t recognise who they were fighting’, says Tavernier. ‘About 20% of the casualties were killed by their own sides. So even back then you had the fog of war.’
The Princess of Montpensier is out on selected release now.