Interview: Bertrand Tavernier, ‘The Princess of Montpensier’

Prolific auteur Bertrand Tavernier is a legend of French cinema, having directed over 30 films and worked with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut during his long career. His latest sweeping historical drama The Princess of Montpensier (2010) is set during the horror of the ‘War of Religion’ (1562–98) and revolves around the fate of a young girl, Marie (Mélanie Thierry), who is forced to marry for political reasons. CineVue met up with the director to discuss his latest project and find out what his motives for making the film.

Joe Walsh: When did you first come across Lafayette’s story, La princesse de Montpensier?

Bertrand Tavernier: The producer sent me a draft of the screenplay, but when I read the short story – which I did not know – I saw that the approach was totally wrong. I discovered I did not have the same vision of the main character, I was not seeing the film as they were seeing it. They had moved a lot of the action to Paris – in the palace of Catherine de’ Medici – with a majority of the intrigue happening there. For me this approach was wrong. Essentially, it is a story about a very young woman who was trying to survive and only understands 20% of what is happening around her.

I had to avoid doing a film about the period. I had to do a film about the actors living in that period and trying to survive, which is very different. In many ways they are like us, they are living in a world where we ignore 50% of what is happening, even with all the media today, which they did not have. When I focused on that idea I knew how to approach the film.

JW: It’s a very emotionally complex film and must have been hard to cast. What was your approach to casting?

BT: The casting was not difficult for half of the cast; I had half of them in mind when I was writing. There were many young actors I found interesting and had strong performances. We did some screen tests for the character of Marie, and when I found Mélanie she was perfect for the character.

With Lambert Wilson, the first two minutes I met him I knew he was perfect, the way he was walking, everything about him, he has a strength about him. The one member of the cast I discovered late was Raphaël Personnaz who plays the Duc of Anjou. This was because the origional actor I had in mind could not make the film. My assistant director reminded me of Raphaël, whom I had cast in a smaller role, so I gave him the part of Anjou and he was tremendous to work with.

JW: The characters demonstrate the emotional complexity of the film extremely well. Is it important for you, as well as exploring emotion, to invoke emotion in your audience?

BT: For me, emotion is the most important element in a film, it dictates everything. I saw that the film was complex because the characters are complex. Take the Prince of Montpensier for example: he is not only someone who is jealous, he is someone who has many colours, this must not be explained but found. He is a man comfortable on the battlefield, but he is emotionally uneducated, he has know idea how to say to a young girl “I love you” – he cannot find the words. Continually the Prince is making mistake after mistake. Each time I found him incredibly touching, even if he is making mistakes…

I remember a line about Shakespeare; the greatest lines of Shakespeare are when a character is shown with total sincerity that he believes he is right, whatever he has done. When Macbeth speaks, you think “Yes, he is right”, and I love that idea. Then, after ten minutes, you discover “No, it’s more complex”.

JW: So where does narrative fit into film for you? Do you believe narrative is still central to cinema?

BT: Yes, it is for me. Of course you have some non-narrative cinema, which is great, but I believe narrative is central. Of course, this is providing you don’t rely on old clichés – you must try to be modern, you must not make films in the way they were in the fifties. Much of the film is modern in the way it is filmed: handhelds and steady cams, with long shots. I have always hated plots; I am obsessed by the quality of the characters and their emotions that must dictate the narrative, not the will of the screenwriters. 

JW: Many of the themes of the film are very modern, especially in its portrayal of feminism. Was it important to have a strong feminist theme?

BT: Yes! I was immediately attracted to the central character for this reason. There is a moment in Lafayette’s novel where she explains Marie’s parent’s motivation and method of how to make Marie accept the marriage – she states they must torment her. I did not know what she meant, so I asked a historian, “What does she mean?”, and he said, “They must torture her.” I said, “She is a high ranking noble how can this be?”, and he came back saying, “Bertrand, you must understand she has no more rights or privilege than a fifteen year-old girl from a Mormon family today, or a girl in a protestant conservative family in Ohio, she has absolutely no rights.” Suddenly I thought that this character relates to many young girls situations today. When she asks to be taught to write she wants this because she understands that she can survive if she has knowledge and culture.

This made me think of Madame de Lafayette, who was the first woman novelist; she survived because she wrote this book. It makes me think of the girls in Afghanistan who walk 20 miles to go to school, or those in Tunisia. When a young girl wants to learn to read and write it moves me very, very much. This is not something from the past, it is very, very contemporary, Marie understands that culture can be a life jacket; culture can save you when you are drowning.

JW: A theme expressed in the film – which you have picked up upon in previous works – is pacifism, particularly though Lambert Wilson’s character.

BT: Yes, Lambert Wilson’s character is very similar to a character from Live and Nothing But (1989). Lambert’s character, Comte de Chabannes, comes from a world of violence and he wants to forget that. His central problem is that he has seen the horror of the world and of fanaticism. Did you know there were more people killed during the War of Religion than there were in the whole of the French Revolution? This killing in the name of God still makes headlines today. A recent story in La Monde stated there was a fanatic trying to ban a play in Paris – they are holding views exactly like those during the War of Religion – they are not murderers but the ideology is the same. When reading the story, it was mentioned that a man threw rotten eggs and rocks at audiences of the play. When questioned had he seen play, he simply stated “I can believe without seeing” and quotes the bible at them! This religious fanaticism is horrible.

The Princess of Montpensier is now available to own on DVD and Blu-ray. You can read our review here.

Joe Walsh