FILM COMMENT’s Kent Jones sat down with director Benoît Jacquot recently to talk about Farewell, My Queen, which is now playing in limited release, with a national opening to follow this weekend.
Was the novel Farewell, My Queen popular?
Yeah. It won a prize, and it was really a big best-seller.
Did you buy the rights early?
No. About 10 years ago, I shot a film with Isabelle Adjani, Adolphe , and Antoine de Baecque, who was directing the culture page at Libération at the time, and he asked Isabelle and me to read the book, meet the author, Chantal Thomas, and interview her. I read it, and while I’m not sure it’s a great novel, I immediately thought that it could be a very good film and that I could do it very well. But I also thought it was too expensive for the producers I was working with at the time. So I put it aside. Years later Kristina Larsen, a big TV producer, phoned me and asked me if I wanted to make the film for the cinema. So I knew the novel and wanted to adapt it, but it was pretty much by chance that I came to make the film.
You shot with the Alexa?
Yes. From now on I’m only shooting with the Alexa.
Because it gives you exactly what you want, and it gives it to you immediately. You have great freedom.
I remember the first time we met, which was when A Single Girl (95) was released here in the States, and you were speaking of it as a film made in “mental time.” It seems to me that Farewell, My Queen is very similar, because the suspense has nothing to do with getting out of Versailles or “How much time do we have before the peasants storm the castle?” The suspense is in the mind of this girl: “When will the circumstances allow for the queen to love me and ravish me?”
Yes, that’s it. That’s what she’s waiting for. It’s very mysterious, very enigmatic. I always seem to use that equation in my films—emotions plus mysteries.
What’s the mystery in Farewell, My Queen?
It’s the mystery of voluntary servitude: how can you become so alienated as to put your own life aside? That was what I found so compelling in the novel. There’s a passage in Rimbaud on the subject that’s very beautiful and quite difficult: Oisive jeunesse / À tout asservie, / Par délicatesse / J’ai perdu ma vie. “Oisive” – it means “not doing anything.” [Jacquot pulls a tiny, extremely worn dictionary from his pocket.]
That’s my dictionary that I used to cheat on my exams. But it’s only English to French…
Incredible. You carry that around with you everywhere?
And you still don’t use a computer or have e-mail?
No. Listen—I know myself, and if I had e-mail, I would be checking it constantly.
[We determine that the correct translation is “idle”: “Idle youth / By all things enslaved, / Through sensitivity / I’ve wasted my days.”]
Do you agree that there’s a link with A Single Girl?
Of course. It’s the same film. Exactly the same. The hotel in A Single Girl is like the château de Versailles. It’s not happening in real time—it’s four days as opposed to an hour and a half—but it’s the same. And it’s funny to make that criss-cross between them, with Virginie [Ledoyen] in this film . . . I think I must be crazy.
To do things like that, without knowing it . . . really, it’s true. It’s Virginie who told me: “You know what you’re doing now? You’re telling me that I’ve become older and that I’d better give my dress to the young one.”
But I didn’t know I was doing it.
Her voice is so deep . . . deep and rough.
Yeah, well, it was like that when she was 18 years old, but of course it’s not the same thing. Now, at 35 with two kids and a lot of life . . . she’s different.
The three actresses [Ledoyen, Diane Kruger, and Léa Seydoux] are great.
I like Léa very much. But maybe I like her because . . . she’s been good in other films, but never as good as in this one. So I liked very much to be the first to really film her. She’s never been in a film in which she’s been so present, from the first shot to the last.
You enjoyed working with Diane Kruger?
Yes, we got along very well. She has a real aristocratic beauty.
Like she’s ready to be painted.
Sure, because she’s playing the queen of France.
Yes, but in other films too. The Tarantino, for instance.
She’s very good in the Tarantino film.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
I’m going to do a melodrama, like Love Affair by Leo McCarey, and I think I’ll shoot it in spring of next year, probably with Benoît Poelevoorde and definitely with Charlotte Gainsbourg. It’s extremely emotional. Like me. My films are never obviously emotional, and what I want to do is make a film in which the emotions are the film.
Like Pas de scandale …
Yes. I want to make a film where the emotions are at the center, as opposed to refracting emotions through a mental or erotic lens—more sentimental than mental. So in the next film, I would like to stick with the emotions but dispense with the mysteries. It’s what I love in the great films I admire, by Mizoguchi, McCarey, or John Ford—the absolute evidence of emotions and their force.