"The actresses act in the present not in the past"
by Fabien Lemercier
02/02/2012 - In his twentieth feature film, Farewell, My Queen [trailer, film focus] that opened the 62nd Berlinale, Benoît Jacquot depicts the past, more specifically the beginnings of the fall of royalty in France in 1789, as if it were the present. In the German capital, he explained his approach to the international press.
How did you go about adapting the novel Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas into a screenplay?
Benoît Jacquot: What is important for me in a screenplay, even if it is for a period far back in time, is to be able to make all that I shoot and all that I ask of the actors as immediate as possible to an audience today. So everything that is anecdotal, everything that intimately reflects the life of the characters and the situations in which they evolve, tends to give immediacy, a life to things, that makes them very close, even if they happened centuries ago. It's very similar with music. The composer Bruno Coulais and I have now worked together on several films, and we have a rather special way of working, as most of the music is almost entirely composed before shooting. It [music] is therefore an integral, almost organic, part of the film that I want to make. I know more-or-less what the music will be, when it will be, and for how long, before I even start directing. For me, that's very important.
How did you manage to ensure that your actresses gave modern interpretations of a story set in 1789 ?
It's all in the way of shooting, the way of welcoming your actors - here actresses - so that they are not introduced into a world from the past. Even if they are in costume and in another time's setting, I try to give them the feeling that there is no rupture between the time in which they are acting and the time that they are supposed to represent. This permeates through to the way of shooting, and linking scenes. I try to create a sort of evidence in things, meaning that they happen this way because they have to happen this way - exactly like when you live in the present. The actresses act in the present not in the past. This is why the film gives the impression of being in the present. There are two ways of making a historical film. Either as a historian, like an antiques dealer, which can be very beautiful, with great efforts to show the past as it was. Or - and this is my way - you can try to make the past as contemporary as possible, without anachronism. It was great, for example, that Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virginie Ledoyen acted in their costumes, not as if they were wearing costumes, as if they were in disguise or in camouflage, but as if they are wearing the dress that is theirs at that point in time.
To what extent did you choose your actresses on the basis of their beauty?
Beauty is nothing if it is not the splendour of truth. It may sound a little emphatic, but this is what Plato said. What I expect from actresses, beyond their beauty, is that they be real so that their beauty is true too. Because cinema is an instrument for truth, not for lies as some may think.
You portray a weak king. Was this a choice to better concentrate on your female characters?
It was important for me to portray Louis XVI an undecided, clumsy, even bourgeois - they called him The Great Bourgeois at the time - and that he have this immature side as if he were an incomplete, drafted character. This is why, to his scene with Diane, he brings a certain simplicity and good-nature that some might find surprising. Xavier Beauvois isn't a full-time actor, he is a well-known director. But it was my choice. There are in fact three directors acting in the film, with Noémie Lvovsky and Jacques Nolot. This is what I wanted because they play roles that, in a way, need directing, either by themselves or by the world that they inhabit. For the king, played by Beauvois, this is obvious. Mme Campan (Noémie Lvovsky) is in charge of directing the queen's circle, and Nolot who plays a nobleman in the corridor is a little like a director in a panic.
In 2011, we witnessed the end of many reigns and dynasties around the world. To what extent did this atmosphere influence you?
It's practically the point of the film, its subject. It is not even a question of influences, the film is about that. I am personally a great fan of end of reigns. In obviously very different proportions and perspectives according to each place and situation, all ends of reigns are alike. Those in power inevitably hang on to it, whatever the ideology or social class that they come from. Ends of reigns especially in their last days, days of panic as the ship sinks fast, since the dawn of time have many points in common that one can try to identify. It has to be said that for France and the rest of Europe, the exact days of Farewell, My Queen were absolutely decisive.