Award-winning French director Bertrand Tavernier says he became a filmmaker because of his love of American Westerns – as he visited the home of the classic genre to launch his latest movie.
The 69-year-old, whose romantic swashbuckler The Princess of Montpensier is released in the US on April 15, says the golden age of Hollywood cowboy movies filled him with the “physical pleasure” of filmmaking.
“I became a director because of my admiration for westerns like She wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949 by John Ford), 3:10 for Yuma (1957 by Delmer Daves), Bend of the River (1952, by Anthony Mann) or Pursued (1947 by Raoul Walsh).
“Suddenly I felt again what these directors must have felt, when they filmed cavalcades, landscapes,” he said in Beverly Hills. “It was like going back to my roots, to what I felt when I was 15.
“I saw myself again, a young cinema lover, discovering the fantastic sword fights in Scaramouche by George Sidney (1952),” he added.
Indeed, after his In the Electric Mist in 2009, made in the United States with Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman, the Gallic cinema veteran has returned to his early passions: duels and horses.
The Princess of Montpensier, starring Lambert Wilson and Melanie Thierry, tells a story of passion and rivalry set against the savage Catholic/Protestant wars that ripped France apart in the 16th century.
“There is one thing I have tried to show very strongly in my latest films,” said Tavernier, who has won a number of French Cesar film awards, as well as a BAFTA in Britain for his 1989 movie Life and Nothing But.
“That is, how happy I am on the set; how much I love filming; and how much I want to make the public know how much pleasure I have in making these films.”
But while full of admiration for Hollywood’s golden age, he is dismissive of many Gallic attempts at the sword-fighting genre, notably any including French actor Jean Marais.
“The sets were useless. Nobody took any care over the choice of exterior locations. Horse scenes were filmed against sad plains, with no sky. The colours were ugly, horrible to watch,” he said.
“The French took a long time to use colour. You had to wait for the 1960s and 70s and the new generation … to finally get films which were magnificently photographed. Before that it was botched, everything was over-lit.”
La Princesse de Montpensier was presented at last year’s Cannes film festival, and the English version was well received when screened at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles in March.
“They said the film was modern and audacious,” said Tavernier. “That was different from some reactions in Cannes, where they told me the film was too classic. I couldn’t understand that reaction.
“But Claude Chabrol told me, a few years ago,” he said, referring to the French New Wave pioneer filmmaker who died last year. “He told me: ‘If you make a film with candles and oil lamps, people will say it’s classic and academic.
“‘If you make the same scene with a flash light, it will be modern,'” he added.