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The King's Daughters • Interview with Patrica Mazuy

How long have you been working on The King's Daughters?
The producer Denis Freyd contacted me in 1992, when I was preparing Travolta et moi. He had just taken an option on the novel La Maison d’Esther by Yves Dangerfield. When he was talking about Saint-Cyr over the phone, I thought of the military academy, and that interested me immediately. Then I found out that it was about a girls' school started by Madame de Maintenon. I no doubt agreed partially out of bravado, just to see. First of all, to see if the producer was going to be capable of making a film that seemed so difficult, and then to see if I was capable of doing it. I didn't realize what an enormous job it was going to turn out to be. The screenplay was co-written with Yves Thomas, and it took us a long time to get into an acceptable form. Fortunately, I am rather slow, because if you really want to know, I wasn't completely ready to make this film just after Peaux de vaches.
Why did Denis Freyd think of you?
It's true that I was wondering that myself. A commission for a so-called film d’auteur is quite a unique thing. I remember in the beginning asking him if he wanted «something like Dangerous Liaisons or like Full Metal Jacket». I suspected him of having a penchant for something more like Dangerous Liaisons. As I wanted at all costs to avoid the romantic temptation of swooning over young girls in agony, the war movie reference seemed more constructive to me. Saint-Cyr is like a boot camp where Madame de Maintenon trains an army under her command. Like a fanatical general, she has no qualms about sacrificing her own soldiers. When Yves Thomas thought of dividing the film into days that function like so many battles, we had found a solid base to work from.
Is the screenplay very different from the book?
The novel follows a student's agony very closely. I wanted to protect the film from the morbidity of the book where sickness is one of the main characters. In the film, however, sickness arrives progressively, but I think if it hadn't arrived, Madame de Maintenon would have invented it, as a kind of hysterical outgrowth of her character, a kind of murderous Freudian slip. I recently learned that for Yves Dangerfield also «Madame de Maintenon had a beautiful project, but a nasty soul». But while we were writing the screenplay, the book was only one of the elements we used, and we were inundated by the heaps of documentation on Maintenon. We made a lot of use of the school mistresses' journals, as well as the journal of Manseau, the overseer. History books portray Madame de Maintenon as a saint, an austere, not very beautiful, almost constipated woman who was impressive in how she commanded respect. I didn't see her that way, but as someone beautiful who turns out to be terrible in the end. Recently I was happy to find out that Saint-Simon had seen this clearly too. That reassured me about our point of view.
So what was most interesting to you?
The demiurgic aspect of Madame de Maintenon, and the harm that can be done to children and adolescents. Originally the intention for Saint-Cyr was laudable: educating girls so they could avoid the kind of life commonly in store for young nobles - becoming courtesans or going into the Church. Short of using revolutionary methods, like the theater… But Maintenon is a woman of power and a courtesan at the same time, who feels sullied and who wants to cleanse herself. With her wonderful project for an avant-garde school, she thinks she can make up for her sins, but when she begins to feel that she has created a bunch of little «whores» - that is, exactly what she did not want to do – she gradually goes over the edge to madness, which is all the more destructive as she still maintains her power. Mad people aren't dangerous unless they have power, don't you think? Maintenon is dangerous to the girls. She fabricates little clones who reflect back an image of herself that she detests. It's almost Frankenstein! This woman who has never been a mother herself is unrelenting in trying to destroy «her» little girls. Her fear of hell is so great that she is willing to do anything, nothing else matters. She is sure she has failed and will go to hell, that she will be damned and tortured by devils in the blazing fires of hell. Maintenon's fear of hell is physical, ever-present, concrete, and totally perturbs her. I really believe that it was a fundamental anguish for many people in the late 17th century. You have only to read Bossuet's Oraisons funèbres to have proof of this. Maintenon's anguish when faced with nothingness renders her uncontrollable. This is why she will later allow her school of liberty to become a reactionary convent. If she hadn't been completely crazy I don't think she would have agreed to do it. How you harm people while giving the illusion that you are saving them, how you can use children in spite of themselves, by asking them to be too open to teaching, these are ideas that interest me, and from my point of view have timeless, contemporary echoes.
The King's Daughters is not like traditional historical films. How do you think you were able to avoid the traps inherent in period films?
I don't believe in grand ideas about how to renew the genre. You don't make a film just by wanting to, but by bringing together all the right circumstances, accumulating details, and then trying to get by with what you have. The most obvious thing from the outset was that I had to use children. And if I was going to use children, I had better have an actress in front of them who could carry the fort, whom I could rely on if I were to stumble, a star who knew something about power and about life. I also had to have an actress who took pleasure in being terrifying. That's Isabelle. So I had a superstar and mostly 6 to 14 year old girls who were total beginners. I had the feeling that in between these two blocks there had to be strong, tough actors, actors who weren't afraid. Who, because of their baggage from the theater and their personalities, were capable of acting spontaneously, to enable us to feel as palpably as possible the harshness and savageness of the 17th century, the war, the fear of hell, a whole world off-camera having nothing to do with ribbons and pretty girls. Therefore the choice of Jean-Pierre Kalfon as the King, and Simon Reggiani as the Abbot. For Jean-Pierre Kalfon the proposition was that between jump-cuts he would sometimes play an ex-warrior king, and sometimes an ex-man of power and sex who is madly in love for his wife, though he knows she has got a serious problem. For Simon Reggiani: that of a kind of taliban who seizes power, but who is under duress, under the yoke of the Queen ruling over him. His contribution is that of a horseman who is altogether lucid about the undertaking; he brings home to us this very real feeling of fear of hell and the physical certainty of the existence of God that inhabited clergymen of the time. I wanted a harsh, tormented, very basic 17th century. The court is a court of tired warriors who have been to many an orgy. The choice of Anne Marev for Madame de Brinon, an advocate of utopia through the theater and Jean-François Balmer for Racine, of defiance, goes further in the same direction. In terms of directing, having actors from many different horizons on the set was the best solution for electrifying the encounters with these 300 little girls from Lower Normandy. The simple presence of the little girls and adolescents brought something uncontrollable, and I think, precious to the film. I made use of their presence as a way to stay free (not an easy matter on a large film, shot in only 60 days). For example, it took 25 minutes to dress a girl and have her hair done as a Saint-Cyr pupil, and the child labor laws forbid getting children up at 5 in the morning as you do with adults. On the set, I would only get them in tiny doses and only if things were going well, if the right sized costume could be found etc. All this created a state of permanent uncertainty which I believe helped keep the film alive.
Isn't it also the visual feel of the film that it makes it stand apart from films with a «French sensibility»?
With Thomas Mauch, who was Werner Herzog's cinematographer on, among other films, Even Dwarves Started Smalls, we decided do a lot of day-for-night shooting. I didn't want to use candles, which would've seemed like too much of an attempt to make a «period film». Unless, of course, you have the time and the money, as in Barry Lyndon, to really light a film by candlelight, shot after shot! But especially, you can't make children work at night anyway, even if you want to. And so, as I had trouble deciding between real and fake night, I didn't have to decide. So the fact that we more or less had to do day-for-night shooting determined the rest, even with the art director Thierry François for the interiors.
And in terms of direction?
There is little camera movement; the framing in The King's Daughters often seems to be frontal. There are a few traveling shots. But it was quite complicated to construct the images, and I didn't want them to seem artificial. It had to look like reality, not a constructed reality. I saw a film by Michael Curtiz again called The Private Lives of Elisabeth and Essex, where Bette Davis plays a very stiff queen in these huge empty spaces. The directing kept going back and forth, playing with emptiness and fullness.
On top of everything else, the music creates a strange and obsessive feeling in the film. Why John Cale?
Baroque music bores me. The traditional film score, which has come down to us from 19th century melodists, would have been historically incorrect. I wanted a score which played more with emptiness and obsessiveness. I did a lot of pondering about the music beforehand. And then by chance I saw a movie by Barbet Schröeder called The Valley, where the music by Pink Floyd functioned perfectly with a anthropological story. That gave me the idea to go see John Cale. I had him listen to one of his old solo albums, post-Velvet Underground, «Honni soit qui mal y pense». The piece is called Wilson Joliet, it's one of my strongest memories from adolescence; it's a terrifying song which I would resume in four words: The scream that kills! John Cale went a little pale and swore he didn't want to go back to the place he was when he wrote that piece. We did come to an understanding however: I insisted on war, trumpets, a synthesizer, drums; he wanted strings too. Now, in the end, I think his cello sounds a little like 17th-century-no-future-punk!
How did you do the casting, which is essential for choosing young actors?
A huge job. We eliminated all the teenage girls who had a bit of experience, because their faces looked Parisian, like contemporary faces. We went straight to the area where we were going to do the shooting and hold auditions. First Antoinette Boulat picked 3000 girls from schools all over Calvados, the Orne and the Manche; I think more than a 1000 girls made the second cut. We then had about forty girls who worked for six months, including some intensive training periods with the coach Harmel Sbraire, with the dialect coach Anne Le Carpentier, and with me. Girls nowadays are not like Maintenon's girls, neither physically nor psychologically. It's one thing to believe that to be true, and altogether another to see it during the casting. It's a bit like asking girls from Beverly Hills to play girls from the Middle Ages or Indians with blue-eyes. We all worked together to try to find landmarks which would help them find their way, until they could think of Racine as a friend.
Nina Meurisse and Morgane Moré, who play Fontenelle and Grandcamp respectively, how did you find them?
During the casting the idea of having «clones» of Maintenon gelled. That gave us the idea of using girls who were short. Then we took the idea further. Maintenon created clones of herself and reshaped them to eradicate any signs of femininity. Neither of these two flesh and blood examples of her education have much in the way of breasts or bums. For Lucie de Fontenelle, I didn't want a fragile teenager. It's a role which could be very destructive. When we were shooting from January to March 1999, Nina had just turned 12 and her childhood still protected her… There was actually something a bit scattered about her, and something that was like Lucie, of always wanting be what the other person wanted her to be. I wanted her to use the film as a way of coming to terms with this problem of continual seduction. Morgane is a little older. She was almost 15 when we were making the film. At first I chose her to play Athaliah, but then while we were working I was struck by her enormous capacity as an actress. She enabled me to make the screenplay more violent. Nonetheless I had to be careful with the girls; whenever the shooting wasn't going well I felt a bit like Madame de Maintenon!
How do you define their characters: the rebel versus the submissive one?
More like the resistance fighter versus the one who, because she is so malleable, denies her own identity, empties herself, to be filled by Maintenon, until she dies… But in the beginning we worked on very concrete things: we had to teach the girls how to walk, to stand, to find the right diction, and to remain natural in very tightly written dialogues. We had to improvise as French teachers, we had to explain the screenplay word by word… Before the shooting started, during the All Saints' Day and Christmas holidays, Nina and Morgane started to delve into their characters. They found the real keys to the characters later, during the two days of shooting in the summer. Especially concerning the questions Lucie asks herself about Maintenon: Why has she chosen me? Why did she abandon me? For interpretation fanatics, let me just say that these questions are so many metaphors for questioning about Grace, which was a crucial issue during the 17th century.
The performances of Iphigenia and Esther are particularly strong sequences. How did you come up with these scenes?
I was really scared by the formidable prospect of rendering the language of the 17th century palatable, especially Racine! The scenes in dialect at the beginning of the film are extremely useful, as they lead us up to this language. Then the theater is very revealing of Maintenon's education. At the beginning it is the teaching method for reaching utopia, then it becomes the catalyst for the failure of that utopia. During the performance of Iphigenia the course of their fate begins to shift: Maintenon chooses Lucie and rejects Anne. It is the beginning of chaos. With Esther, it gets even worse. We told the girls over and over that speech is a weapon, that they will use it with Racine as their accomplice. Madame de Maintenon coldly orders Racine, who writes passionate theater, to write a play «without passion». Racine accepts the order, and from my point of view, he turns Maintenon's demand inside out. He writes and works with the girls and comes up with an extremely lucid play that announces to young girls that they can be stronger and freer -through speech- than their headmistress. Appalled, Maintenon will substitute religion-as-tool for theater-as-tool and then will end up taking away the girl's right to speech… As time goes by and these tools escape her control, in her madness all she thinks of is her passionate communion with God.
The struggle between Anne and Madame de Maintenon in her bathtub is also very strong.
We want these two to confront one another. Isabelle amazes me: she is extremely inventive. In this scene she makes marvelous use of the mirror I handed her at the last minute. It's no longer Frankenstein: it's Dracula reborn in the blood of virgins! I also love the mad look in her eyes at the very end of the film when she is watching a little rivulet of water...
Interview by Vital Philippot - July 2003