INTERVIEW: "Pushing Things To Their Limits"; Benoit Jacquot Takes On the Marquis de Sade
by Andrea Meyer/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 05.01.02) — French director Benoit Jacquot has been making movies since the ’70s, but most of his American fans didn’t get to know his work until 1995’s “A Single Girl.” The real-time portrait of a pretty Parisian twentysomething (Virginie Ledoyen) working as a hotel housekeeper on the day she discovers she’s pregnant is remarkable for its unusually acute emotional and physical realism. Jacquot even employed two porn stars to play the couple she walks in on having sex.
The director’s follow-up films, like “Seventh Heaven” (1997) and “Disenchanted” (a 1990 film was released in the U.S. after “A Single Girl“), also told compelling stories about regular Parisians and their complicated love lives. Jacquot’s scope has since broadened into the period genre with two recent films: “Sade” (starring Daniel Auteuil), which Empire Pictures opened in New York on Friday, and a filmed version of the popular opera “Tosca” (due this summer from Avatar Films). Andrea Meyer spoke with the celebrated director about pushing limits, period films, and, most importantly, young girls.
indieWIRE: Your early films — “A Single Girl,” “Seventh Heaven,” “The School of the Flesh” — are intimate stories about people living in Paris. But your more recent work, like “Sade” and “Tosca,” are larger, period films. I wonder why you’ve changed your scope so dramatically.
Benoit Jacquot: Me, too, I wonder. Making movies isn’t like writing books and sitting alone in your room deciding what you want to write about. Opportunities arise. Producers propose projects. Actors ask you to make a certain film. Ideas circulate between one director and another, between an actor and a director or producer. At the moment, producers or actors have asked me to make films like these.
iW: Did you have the idea to do “Sade”?
Jacquot: No. But none of my last four films were ideas I originally came up with. The films you were talking about — “A Single Girl,” “Seventh Heaven” — were films that I wanted to do. I wrote them and came up with the ideas, the way you would write a book or paint a picture. My recent films are projects for which I didn’t come up with the ideas. But the ideas that were proposed to me interested me. The producers or actors who proposed them know me well and know when they propose something to me that a priori the ideas should appeal to me.
iW: So they share themes with your earlier work.
Jacquot: Oh yeah, if someone proposes something that doesn’t interest me or if I don’t see in the idea the potential to make a strong, personal film, I won’t do it.
iW: How did you get involved in “Sade”?
Jacquot: The idea to make a film called “Sade” about the Marquis de Sade starring Daniel Auteuil came from the producer.
iW: Was the Marquis de Sade a character that already interested you?
Jacquot: Yes, because he’s an important writer whom I read when I was very young and because all that involves pushing things to their limit interests me. Sade explored the line between the human and the inhuman in a unique fashion, and that’s always fascinated me.
iW: You always seem to make films about young women. Even in your film about the Marquis de Sade you managed to find a story about a young woman.
Jacquot: That’s the only thing that interests me.
iW: It’s rare to find a male director who’s so capable of telling stories from the point of view of a young woman.
Jacquot: I don’t think my films are from the point of view of young women. They’re from my point of view, and I’m not a young woman. But they are from the point of view of someone who likes young women very much. In general, when I make a film about a young woman, it’s because I’m in love with her, and that’s evident in the final product.
iW: You’re in love with the character?
Jacquot: In the beginning, I’m usually in love with the actress — and eventually the character, too.
iW: You’ve worked with famous actresses like Isabel Huppert and others who became famous after you discovered them, like Virginie Ledoyen.
Jacquot: Yes. The film I made with Virginie was the film that really got her noticed. And now I’m working with Isabel Adjani. And the young girl in “Sade,” Isild Le Besco, is starting to be very well known as well.
iW: You chose to explore an unknown period of Sade’s life.
Jacquot: People are not very familiar with his life at all. They think he’s a character out of his books — a criminal, an ogre — and I think he’s a man who clung to his freedom like a treasure and paid very dearly for it, actually losing 35 years of his liberty, because he spent 35 years of his life in prison. Sade is a name that evokes violent images and horrors. What interested me was to construct a character that was closer to the idea that I had of Sade, that would be very unexpected and different from what people generally think of him. When you hear the name Sade or hear that a film is called “Sade,” you expect it to be full of orgies and torture.
iW: People who are familiar with Sade’s life, however, generally think of the period when he was at the mental institute of Charenton, but you chose to explore a period of his life that most people may not know at all.
Jacquot: That’s true. In the biography of Sade, there’s a period that’s virtually unexplored which is when he spent several months in this house in the country at the end of the Terror. And that’s all we know. There were people there who were very rich and who could afford to stay there, but Sade had almost nothing left. He’d been ruined. We don’t know how he managed to live there or how he escaped the Terror. The lack of concrete information allowed us to invent everything. The young girl was completely fictional, which allowed me to make another movie about a young girl.
iW: Will you continue to make period films?
Jacquot: No, I don’t think so. The one I’m working on now, however, is another period film. It’s based on a French novel called “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant. It takes place in the beginning of the 20th century, and it should be good. When I was young and wanted to make films, I thought I would like to make period films, but I’d forgotten about it. I like it, but that’s enough. I’m going to make another film next autumn that’s not a period film. It’s the story of a young girl and it will star the young girl from ‘Sade.’ It’s about a girl from a bourgeois family who falls in love with a boy she knows nothing about. It turns out he’s a gangster who’s just participated in a hold-up and he drags her along when he flees the police. It’s a true story that took place in the ’70s.
iW: Where do you place yourself in the tradition of French cinema? What’s your relationship to the French New Wave?
Jacquot: I’m a son of the Nouvelle Vague. I was 12 when the Nouvelle Vague began, and it was then that I first became interested in film. If the Nouvelle Vague hadn’t existed, I don’t know if I would have wanted to make movies. I may not have discovered this passion.