Interview with director Benoît Jacquot

Credits include Farewell, My Queen and Three Hearts

French director Benoît Jacquot makes no secret of his interest in women, in a good way. At the French Film Festival recently he was asked whether he agreed with an article in the New York Times last year that described him as a director ‘who loves women’.

He hardly paused to think. ‘Why not?’ he replied, cheekily. ‘It’s all true…My passion for actresses is indicative of my passion for women.’ The audience at the Q&A after his film Farewell, My Queen laughed along with him.

Jacquot is in Australia as a guest of the Alliance Francaise festival to present his most recent film, set when the French Revolution was gathering pace. It picks up exactly at the moment where Sofia Coppola’s film about the doomed queen finishes, and covers four days in July when the Bastille was stormed and it was announced that 286 heads had to roll before necessary reform was possible.

In my interview beforehand, I asked him about how the idea for the film began. Two things in particular appealed to him when he read the award-winning Chantal Thomas novel on which his film is based. A unique perspective and the compression of time. Coppola’s film takes place over 15 years. Farewell, My Queen takes place over four days and three nights in July 1789, moments before ‘everything was turned upside down’ and changed the course of history.

This unique perspective belongs to Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader, her lectrice in the last days of the ancien regime. ‘ What interested me was the point of view of someone who was very close to the events but who at the same time could not entirely comprehend them.’

Played by Lea Seydoux, the ingénue Sidonie is a radical change from the novel, in which she is around 50 years of age and reflecting on her past life. It was very important for Jacquot that Sidonie was on the verge of adulthood. An empty vessel, I ask?

He likes the expression. ‘An empty what? Vessel? That’s nice. She is an empty vessel because she is very, very young and has not yet left her childhood behind. She is very impressed by the Queen and at the same time it renders her incapable of understanding the adult nightmare that she is living through.’

Sidonie, however, never existed. Queen Marie Antoinette had readers, but there is no record of Laborde.’ She is the only fictional character in the film,’ says Jacquot. ‘She exists only in the film. We could say she comes to life as she wakes in the first scene and dies at the end.’

She is a commoner, a girl of accomplishments who also knows how to embroider and cook, but this is all we have to go on. Her character is a device through which the lives of famous others can be explored. Like James McAvoy’s naive young doctor to the notorious African dictator in The Last King of Scotland, she is a device to access and observe a private world.

In Farewell, My Queen, Marie Antoinette (played by German actress Diane Kruger) is infatuated with the Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen, the lead in Jacquot’s A Single Girl of 1995). Is the relationship between the two women historically correct? ‘Marie Antoinette is known to have had two ‘favourites’. One of these was the Princess of Lamballe, who was executed by the revolutionaries early and her head presented to the queen. The second favourite, the Duchess de Polignac, managed to flee in disguise.’

The relationship between the women in the film is based on the expressions of mutual affection in their correspondence—and also on newspapers (or gutter press?) of the time. And anyway ‘her life was such a bore, that I hope she had some sort of distraction!’

The shoot took two months. Jacquot prefers to work quickly, and besides it was expensive booking time at one of the world’s great tourist attractions. ‘We had to adhere to the authenticity of the decor of Versailles to shoot within the palace. Once the decision has been made and the green light given, we could only film when it was closed to the public, which is to say, on Mondays and in the evenings.’

No, he doesn’t see his film as being in competition with or being offered as a comparison to the creative blend of pop culture and history that was Coppola’s in 2006.. ‘ And then, what interests Sofia (who he knows) is the fashionista queen. It’s charming, very entertaining and ‘tres snob’, but what interests me is her schizophrenia at that point. Marie Antoinette was both the princess of the music hall and the queen of tragedy. She had a foot in both camps.’

Jacquot’s point of departure for his film’s aesthetic was reportage, as though documenting developments in a momentous historical, political event. The grand palace, as it is gradually emptied of life, gradually becomes a cavernous haunted metaphor for the political nightmare taking place within it.

His approach to period drama is to be as accurate, precise and the least anachronistic possible, and ‘once this exactitude is in place…it becomes the reverie of a cineaste of the 21st century’. Once satisfied he has the details right, he has not felt overwhelmed by further demands for authenticity, and as a result his study of the queen and her dying breed is somehow allowed to breathe, despite the weight of the wigs and the elaborate fashions.

Sixty-six year old Jacquot knew he wanted to work in cinema from an early age and was once an assistant to some of the greats like Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. In his career, Jacquot has not confined himself to fiction features. He has also directed documentaries, opera and theatre. Indeed, he is slated to direct a production of La Traviata at the Bastille in the near future.

As his body of work contains a number of literary adaptations, what are his views on turning novels into film? When most of the audience won’t be familiar with the book anyway, fidelity or lack of fidelity to the original text is, he says, of more concern to the filmmakers. It presents no problem at all for this urbane and mischievous Frenchman. ‘For me personally,’ he confided, knowing it will raise a laugh, ‘I really like being unfaithful!’ There you have it.

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