A conversation with Bertrand Tavernier


The Princess Of Montpensier takes place in France in 1562. Against the background of the savage Catholic/Protestant wars, Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry), a beautiful young aristocrat, and the lively Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) fall in love, but Marie’s father has promised her hand in marriage to the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). When he is called away to battle, her husband leaves her in the care of Count Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), an aging nobleman with a disdain for warfare. As he experiences his own forbidden desire for Marie, Chabannes must also protect her from the dangerously corrupt court dominated by Catherine de Medici. Tavernier translates Madame de Lafayette’s 1622 tale into a bracingly intelligent and moving evocation of the terrible conflict between duty and passion. Though the themes are classic, Tavernier, with cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer’s vivid landscapes and Philippe Sarde’s pulsing score, makes them feel passionately contemporary.

Bijan Tehrani: When did you decide to make The Princess Of Montpensier?
Bertrand Tavernier: This was one of the rare times where the producer gave me the idea. With most of my films, I have originated them, but this time the producer gave me a draft of the screenplay and the actual short story. I read the draft and it was interesting, but when I read the short story I discovered that I was disagreed heavily with its adaptation of it, so I started from scratch with a new adaptation. 

Bijan: And what was the soul of this story for you?
Bertrand: The character of Marie and the fact that I saw the possibility of making a very beautiful, poignant, and very meaningful love story.  The story of a woman, a very young woman, who is stripped from all of her rights and is trying to survive, trying to fight to keep her pride.  I found this theme very relevant to today’s issues. She has to survive a pre-arranged marriage, which she didn’t want,  so she is trying to educated herself, she is trying to learn, and trying to use her culture to survive. I feel that this is a very meaningful film today for many women throughout the world. 

Bijan: Another wonderful aspect of your film is that none of your characters are completely negative and even most of them are likeable. 
Bertrand: That’s true; I wanted the audience to like all the characters. Even Guise, Guise is a fundamentalist killer, but I did not want him to be just a macho guy, a great and brave warrior, but I wanted him to be vulnerable when he is with the princess.  I told him “When you tell her you love her, the audience must completely believe you.  Guise’s character is sincere in his love, and maybe his sincerity lasts for only the moment he is with Marie and then he will forget her. I wanted every character to have an interesting side and something that helps me accept and like that character. I wanted the husband to be more than just a jealous person; for me he was not jealous, but he was madly in love with Marie, his wife,  and he did not know how to express his love. He had not been told, he never learned how to say “I love you” to somebody and I found his character very, very, very moving.
Bijan: Another great aspect of The Princess Of Montpensier is that  the story is set centuries back, yet it feels very contemporary and modern.
Bertrand: That was very important for me. I wanted the style of the film to be modern, and also for its themes to be modern. I was not filming historical characters; they did not know that they were historical characters. I wanted to film them with the same urgency and immediacy as if they had been rock stars today. The fact that they were wearing a kind of costume which belongs to the past is very superficial; their emotions, their feelings, the way they are in love, the way they are trying to fight and survive is very modern. The pace of the film had to be modern and I wanted the pace of the film to be fast and to be hectic because the main characters are young and impatient—they want everything to happen now, and I never wanted to look at something which is in the past and does not exist today. Intolerance and the killing in the name of god is something that makes the front page of all of the newspapers today.

Bijan: The film is indeed quite contemporary. It also seems that many movies about the past tend to glorify that time period, but this film seems to be true to the actuality of the time period.
Bertrand: I tried—and thank you very much for observing it in my film, because I tried very hard to show what it was like to live in that time. I didn’t try to show anything in the film more beautiful than it really was and I tried to avoid having a romantic vision; I wanted to show how people loved each other in those days. I wanted to show that, in those days—because it was not a puritanical time—nudity was not important. I wanted to show  when they were fighting, that they did not have any rules, the rules in the duels came forty or fifty years later. I wanted to show that when you were dealing with a battle, people had no uniform and they could not recognize each other. I am sure (and this is something that is shown in the film) that 30% of the casualties were people of the same camp killing each other, because nobody was wearing any kind of uniform. 

Bijan: How did you go about casting the film?
Bertrand: All of the characters had to be young. It was specified, even by Madame de Lafayette. I knew young actors which I had seen on plays and films and I casted them and the others. One of my greatest joys as a director is casting. I love meeting actors, and I feel that I have a good eye for their talent. I think that I have several films that were successful because of who I casted. When I did Round Midnight with Dexter Gordon, nobody had done that before me. So it was exciting to get all of those new actors. Melanie Thierry was a discovery, for instance, and she is one of the greatest actors that I have ever worked with. 

Bijan: She is wonderful as an actor, and she seems to be so experienced.
Bertrand: Yes, she has been working on the stage and she is very good. She has all the colors of the characters. She could go from being a very naive and playful young teenager to a condescending, aristocratic princess.  She could be very sensual and incredibly beautiful and she could also be very frail and vulnerable. At the beginning of the film, she is a young girl, and at the end of the film she has become a woman. 

Bijan: Had you worked with Lambert Wilson before this film?
Bertrand: Never, that was a great discovery. I loved working with him. He was a very gentle, intelligent and very educated man. Lambert is classically trained and he has played a lot of classical characters, so he is very at ease in a historical drama. For him, this is something that is very organic. He can understand all of the motivations and the music of the character.  He is also a great horseman, he is wonderful on the horse! 

Bijan: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
Bertrand: My idea was to tell the DP that I did not want the film to look like all of the other period films, which are often over-lit. I wanted the film to have a film-noir atmosphere. To have a way of lighting it that would be closer to film-noir. In some scenes, I am using only one direction of light, maybe coming from the window or coming from one source of light, and not trying to have twenty different kinds of light sources in one shot which would make it seem like a painting. I was absolutely against imitating a painting. I wanted to find an atmosphere and tension in the shot, and the lighting wouldn’t be too naturalistic; it had to have an idea of being very drastic. Some of the shots were lit from the window and nothing else, so when the characters walk in the room they would be in the dark and then come into the light suddenly when they move through it, and that creates a lot of emotion and tension.

Bijan: Do you have any new projects lined up?
Bertrand: Yes, I would like to do a documentary about French Cinema—my personal relationship with French Cinema, similar to what Scorsese did with American Cinema
Bijan: That sounds like a very enlightening premise, good luck to you!

An In-Person Tribute to Bertrand Tavernier is taking place in LA (March 2 – 23), This program is co-presented with French Film & TV Office, French Embassy, With the support of E.L.M.A. (European Languages and Movies in America)


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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