Acclaimed French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has spent much of his career fascinated by the past. His best-known film, 'Round Midnight, takes place in the 1950s, while his film Life and Nothing But is set at the end of World War I and The Passion of Beatrice follows the suffering of a young woman in the Middle Ages. Tavernier's latest movie, The Princess of Montpensier, again takes up the story of a young woman, but this time in 16th century France — where the past is a crucial part of the present.
The Princess of Montpensier revolves around a young woman from a wealthy family whose father marries her off against her will at the age of 16. Now the wife of a prince, she is forced to become an adult in the midst of the brutal religious wars between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots — though she understands almost nothing of what's going on around her.
Tavernier uses the character's point of view to his advantage. He says the trick to filming a complicated historical period is through the eyes of someone who knows very little — "It's a good way to get connected with the ignorance of the audience," he explains.
The princess' innocence and vulnerability also help to dramatize the difference between her Romantic mind and the brutal violence of the time. Tavernier says it makes for a great contrast.
At the beginning of the movie, the princess is a passive woman among active men, many of them illiterate. But she's intelligent and perceptive — she asks questions about religion, philosophy and society.
"She wanted to educate herself; she wanted to learn how to write — which was something quite revolutionary — and she wanted also to understand the reason for the war," says Tavernier.
As the princess struggles to make sense of this new political world, she also becomes embroiled in the illicit romances of the French courts. Throughout the film, three men fall in love with her, and in various ways, she loves each of them.
Love stories are unusual for Tavernier, whose films typically center on questions of duty, loyalty and responsibility. But in this movie, the princess must figure out how to express — or hide — her feelings within a dangerous jumble of required loyalties and wanton killing. Scott Foundas, associate program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, says this precarious balance of the personal life and the historical speaks to our own time.
"You have people who are having very elemental human dramas — jealousy, envy, rivalries, unrequited love and so forth — in the midst of all this political and religious turmoil that they got swept up in," says Foundas. "You don't have to go too far to see the analogies to that in the world we're living in today."
The Princess of Montpensier is based on the novel by Madame de Lafayette, written in 1662 and set in the 1500s. But Tavernier says outright that his film is not about the 16th century.
"Unless I'm completely wrong, I have the impression that killing in the name of religion is something which happens today — I think it's making the first page of many newspapers throughout the world," says Tavernier. "It seems to me that the treatment of women is something we still are speaking about a lot, no?" he adds.
But Tavernier's interest in the past goes beyond drawing modern parallels. His fascination with history drove him to co-author of one of the most respected histories of American film, Fifty Years of American Cinema, in 1995.
In his own work, Tavernier does not sanitize history — war is gruesome, castles look lived in and even the wealthy are dirty. The past, he says, must not be treated as a sacred artifact.
"In many period films, you have the impression that the director is very happy because he got a good Renaissance table ... and he shows you that he has a Renaissance table," says Tavernier. "But for the people there, it was not a Renaissance table — it was just a table."
For Tavernier, it is important to shoot that table just as it was — not as something which will belong in a museum. "I have to film the furniture, the clothes, without any kind of respect," he explains. He imagines that his costumes are taken off and thrown on the ground, just as a pair of jeans and a T-shirt would be today.
Though he's uninterested in glorifying history, Tavernier says the past is our heritage and it should be valued. He's concerned today's younger generation that is interested only in its immediate present.
"The way they are can be very much explained by what happened before them. ... Like Faulkner said, 'The past — it's not dead; it's not even past,' " he says.
And that's why Tavernier continues to dig it up.