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Interviews exclusives de Gaspard Ulliel et Mélanie Thierry à l'occasion de la sortie du film La Princesse de Montpensier au cinema
Madame de Lafayette's 1622 classic novella successfully translates into a passionate period adventure in director Bernard Tavernier's latest film. Set against the backdrop of savagery as war rages in France between Catholics and Protestants, the Princess de Montpensier is the story of beautiful young aristocratic lovers, separated by circumstance and family responsibility. While this plotline may sound like you’ve heard it before, the quality of Tavernier’s direction stands out from other period pieces. From impressive attention to historical detail to an exploration of issues like arranged marriage and women’s education, there is much that will interest a modern audience.
The lovely Mélanie Thierry plays heiress Marie de Meziers opposite the equally appealing Gaspard Ulliel’s Duc de Guise. As the film opens, the two are in love and plan to marry, until Marie’s father is given a better offer for her hand. She is forced to marry the Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Stuck in his castle with little to think about but her insatiable desire for the Duc and thereby resentment for her own husband, Marie begins to find ways to distract herself from heartache through education. Cue Lambert Wilson's Count of Chabannes who memorably plays tutor and beloved father figure to the Princess.
Some important lessons can be taken from the 140 minutes spent in the Princess’ company. First, for heartbroken young ladies: don’t mope…learn! It’s much more useful. Also, do not make sacrifices for dangerous men no matter how tempting: it’s too risky. This one seems more traditional yet there is a good point to be taken. A woman’s greatest victory is self- respect and improvement, not the winning of man. Once her protests of arranged marriage are muffled, Marie’s silent protest through learning is throught-provoking.
Irresistible sprinkles of well-veiled early feminism, mixed with a beautiful, energetic young cast and successfully directed scenes of passion and battle make for an overall appealing formula.
They are not exaggerating about Gaspard Ulliel. Delicious as a warm chocolate fondant, is he. There is a playful glint in his stare, making its lucky receptor wilfully collaborative in a delightful mischievousness. He is delightfully engaging. This boy-man was evidently born both to act and interact, bringing the same confidence and quiet intelligence to a conversation as he does to the screen.
I know what you’re thinking. Something along the lines of get a grip, woman. But I promise, I arrived at my meeting with Gaspard with all the ripest scepticism of jaded youth. Even after A Very Long Engagement. Also after studying those gorgeous pictures he did for Longchamp at Flore in which Gaspard is nonchalance embodied, as Kate Moss caresses his shoulder. No big deal. Even while watching the Princess of Montpensier. In the film he plays the ever seductive other man, a role Madame de LaFayette seems to have written specifically with Gaspard in mind. I had pretty much kept my cool. The dimples were cute but please –and that scar: how obvious, no? But then, oh my days can this mec talk to girls…
Anyway, I thought I’d start off by asking him, you know, about his work.
Why did you choose to do a historical film?
Well, I didn’t really. The Princess was more than that to me. The producers phoned my agent to say that Bertrand Tavernier wanted to meet up with me on this film. And for me, the first, most ideal thing was to be working with Bertrand, because obviously in France he is one of the major filmmakers now. So I was just thrilled by the idea of working with him. This was originally what was appealing to me.
But then obviously I remember reading the script and the short story by Madame de LaFayette and I thought it was so interesting. It’s a story full of strong feelings, great emotion, and also I liked the idea that so many strong themes were involved in it that would have really high resonances with our modern world. Like forced marriage, and the condition of the woman at that time; the idea of fighting for religious beliefs is something that is still happening today in many countries.
And it’s an important moment in the history of your country isn’t it?
It is. And regarding the period, and historical aspect, it was quite interesting to work on that precise period of French history –it was the beginning of the Renaissance. It was a period of history that is quite obscure for many people in France because even historians are fighting on many aspects of this moment in history. So it was quite interesting to be working on this time of French history. I learnt so much because we had this great director, who is passionate about history and he knows so many things on so many different topics. So he would give us a lot of important information on this period of history and he would even give us references, books to read. I actually couldn’t get enough history, what a geek!
What else did you do to get into character? Were you living and breathing de Guise?
I think at the end of the day I like to go back into my own shoes –especially when you go into a period character, it’s hard to stay in character the whole time. But obviously, most actors at the end of the day, there’s still a bit of the character that sticks with you, and your behaviour changes a bit during the shooting. So at some point, you might be inclined to react or behave a bit like the character. I was not trying particularly hard to stay in character throughout.
And did working with Tavernier live up to your expectations?
Yes. It was really fulfilling -such a great experience. I mean, the whole process was so happy and full of joy. The atmosphere on the set truly comes straight from the director. And on set he is the happiest man in the world. He’s a bit like a child, full of energy. He arrives with a big smile and is so excited to be on set. So this is really stimulating for the whole crew. It was really smooth shooting the whole time. I can’t think of a moment where we had any real difficulties.
Also the idea of working with such a great cast –with a lot of young actors- was really quite exciting, because I started working in this industry quite young and I always tended to be working with people that were older than me. And for La Princess, I got to work with a bunch of actors my own age, which was big fun.
A few questions about yourself….
Paris or London?
Uh…both. Well I’ve always lived in Paris and I love it. But I quite like London. I have a lot of friends who have moved from Paris to London so I travel here often to visit them. I really enjoy my time in London every time I come, but I don’t know if I would like it the whole year round, full time. Its gray, no? I mean… just the weather.
What are your favourite spots here in London?
It’s always the same way, I just follow my friends. I go where they take me. Like a doggie! But there are really nice restaurants here, wonderful food. And this is quite new actually, isn’t it? Because I remember years ago it wasn’t always the case –you had a really hard time finding a good restaurant. Now there are so many great places to eat in London. The other thing I like here, are all the big parks, lot’s of nature. We need more of that in Paris.
Country or city boy?
I’m a city man.
What qualities do you look for in a woman?
Tough question. I think I can be charmed by many different types of women, actually. It’s all about a connection and chemistry. What I don’t like: when she becomes a bit vulgar. I like classy ladies, I’d say, overall.
What’s your idea of happiness?
Well, I’m glad I work as an actor. It’s intense, which I love, and it absorbs me completely. It’s fascinating. It’s a great job way of fully experiencing of life. Because you get a chance to meet a lot of different people and experience a lot of different things from one set to another –one film to another. Plus I get to travel around the world and try to understand different cultures. So I think I got pretty lucky to fall into this line of work because it started completely by chance and I never thought about doing it when I was younger.
It just happened like this: I met with some people –went to some castings and that was it. So I think I was incredibly lucky. I think I would never be ready to do a regular job. I couldn’t go to the office every day at the same hour. I love my life. This freedom. Dealing with emotions all the time as part of my job. Also, there’s the artistic side. It’s creating something that is wonderful.
So what’s next? Who do you aspire to work with?
There are a lot of different directors I’d like to work with all around the world. I just finished working with Emanuel Mouret, who always deals with quite interesting comedies, with a very peculiar sense of humour. Quite witty. This was a big fun, I can’t wait to see the film, it is being edited right now.
Then, I also have this other project coming up. It’s supposed to be shot at the end of the summer. It’s a friend of mine who’s directing actually –I worked on his first film and we became close. Nobody’s heard of his first film. It was small and never made it very far but I am quite excited about this film. The script is very good and it’s with Emanuelle Beart, so it’s good to meet Emanuelle on set again, ten years later, because I worked with her on “Straight”. And also Gregoire Leprince was on this film too, and I got to catch up with him again on La Princese de Montpensier. So it was great to meet up with him again, ten years later. I worked with him when he was 14 years old and now, I’ve just worked with him as a twenty-something. He’s changed a lot. And his voice changed! It was quite moving.
So I have this other project coming up in summer. But that’s it for the moment. I think I’m in this tricky period of my career. You know, I think the hardest thing for an actor is not the breakthrough; the hardest thing is to last for a long time. That is when you have to be really careful about your choices and your audience, and your career. And that’s what I’m dealing with now. I’m really cautious regarding the films I’m going to make. I am lucky enough not to be in need of money -I don’t have any children –so I can take my time and use only the good projects.
Last question. Tell me about your famous scar.
Well it’s a scar –it’s true. A dog was sleeping. I just –jumped on his back. So of course, he was frightened. It wasn’t his teeth though, it was his paw. He just sort of…hit me in the face in reaction to my harassment. I was six years old. Big dog. But you know, I wasn’t really traumatised. I’m not scared of dogs now, at all. I love dogs. So, yeah, I don’t regret it at all. Now it looks like a dimple. So maybe it helps a bit in my acting because it gives something a little more, when I –you know- smile. I don’t really think about it when I’m acting but it sure is here, on my face, so it gives me a real identity. It’s my own little thing.
Model turned actress Melanie Thierry has been charming French audiences since the mid nineties. Of course, it was only when she landed a role opposite Vin Diesel in Babylon AD that the mesmerizing young mother became the subject of international appreciation. In person, she exemplifies the calm, cool confidence of la Parisienne. While apparently humbled by further-flung attentions, Thierry is a self-proclaimed product and devotee of French cinema. Hollywood, she says, is a far away place, not a goal…
Why did you take on this role? Why a period piece?
Well, you know… I had to audition. I had to show interest before being chosen. So it happened in lots of steps. Once I was chosen I was overjoyed because it meant I’d be working with a superb French director and this was really the first time this had happened to me. I had worked with good directors but I’d never worked with a mythical one. So I was so glad something like that could happen to me.
So then, it was this very beautiful love story. Plus it’s wonderful for an actress to work in different periods and settings. I loved working on a Renaissance film particularly though because I got to wear beautiful dresses, to speak in a different way, all that. I was really excited about it.
Did you do a lot of research for the role?
No –not really. I wanted to get to know Marie. I wanted to understand her hopes, dreams, wishes and obsessions. First and foremost, I wanted to know the person I was playing. So a coach trained me, which was helpful and comforting in terms of the rather lengthy preparation. I tried to find a way to find a way to understand the text and to know the truth about her.
And then the background work, Tavernier really handed it to me in a lot of ways. He is a very cultivated man. He is all about precision too.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
Well it all comes from the director -as is always the case. There are some directors who are very nervous, stressed, uptight, reserved. So in such cases the sets are always very silent and concentrated because everyone feels the nervousness of the director. Then, sometimes, like with Bertrand, it’s very different. Bertrand is a very happy person. He always wants to share his enthusiasm. Which allows for certain lightness, almost childish wonder on set. You’re allowed to laugh. You’re not bighting the inside of your cheek to hold it together when something funny happens. Which does happen sometimes, by the way. So the atmosphere is really generous. Sharing the fun.
And it was a very young cast, on the whole…
Yes, exactly. Young actors, fun actors who were all very happy to be there. We all understood how lucky we were to be there. Also we were also really excited to be working with one another. Then there was also Bertrand’s team. So there were the twenty-somethings and then there were the veterans, which was a great mix.
Why is this film important for women? Is it a feminist film?
No. For sure it’s a “feminine film,” but it’s not a feminist film, for me. It’s all about the complexity, for a young woman, of living in such a world. So at that time, obviously, arranged marriage affected a lot of women. It doesn’t really exist anymore in our western society but in some parts of the world it does.
The thing is, my character doesn’t understand why she isn’t allowed to have access to the poetry, to the philosophy, and to know how to write and read. I mean, she really wants to find fulfilment, and for that she needs to understand what kind of world she is living in. It was a violent period of time –she wanted to change the codes. She doesn’t understand why she has to love someone she doesn’t love and why she cannot follow the lover who is her entire life. She doesn’t like to do anything halfway. It has to be passion. For everything: passion with love, passion with philosophy and with poetry. It’s all about the fiery passion for her.
Was there a lesson to be learned from her eventual experience?
It’s the game. There’s no escape in passion. There’s no escape in the way she knows from the beginning that she will burn her bridges with de Guise.
…Questions to get to know you better…
Paris or London?
Paris –I’m completely devoted to Paris.
What do you like to do here in London?
Well every time I come here, it’s always for work, so I’ve never had a lot of time to stroll around or anything. But I know the hotels very well and they’re lovely! Oh and I like the parks. I do not understand why there are squirrels in London and not in France. This is a huge injustice, in my opinion. I am very jealous that here you can have a promenade in the park with the lovely squirrels and in France it’s like…nothing. My son agrees with me on this.
Who are you aspiring to work with in the world of cinema?
I have many heroes. In France I very much admire the world of Xavier Beauvois. And I really like Jacques Audiard. Both are in France, you’ll note, as my ambition is and has always been to work in France. If I go further and if I have the chance to work in another place, that’s great. But Hollywood is not my focus at all.
It’s strange though, because most of the time people ask me about Hollywood and Hollywood, again and again. Yet I really have the feeling that the actors in France –well, it’s not that they don’t care or they’re not curious about Anglophone cinema but for me I’m not particularly interested. My language is French. We have great directors and if I could make a good place for myself in my country’s world of cinema, I would feel very happy indeed. Then, if more comes –a few extras once in a while –that’s cool. It changes the daily life a bit.
What directors have you most enjoyed working with?
I really liked Kassovitz. Even though Babylon AD may not have been…so well done. Which is because it was not so easy to manage the making of it. This sometimes happens. You know, sometimes shooting is great and easy and very much on the rails. In these cases, you often don’t know quite what happened but it was magic for everybody. Then, sometimes, it’s just a disaster. It’s a mess. The mess. You don’t understand what’s happening and it’s like you’re involved in some sort of nightmare and you can’t find an exit. So I was a bit sad that Babylon could have been better. But I really liked Kassovitz as a person. I’d love to work with him again, perhaps on something lighter and easier.
What do you do when you’re not working?
When I am not working I want to be with my son. Just being with him is a reward. It’s always cool. We really like the circus. We go to the cinema. Whatever we do, my day with him stands out, even if we do nothing. I also go to see shows a lot when I’m not working. Dance shows or theatre –a lot of theatre because I love it. For the moment I’m not working so I see something at least three times a week.