An eye for the small things.

French writer–director Benoît Jacquot says he far prefers questions about how he makes his films than why. 

Farewell My Queen, his very engrossing film about Marie Antoinette and her relationship with one of her readers, showed in South Africa as part of the French film festival a few months ago. Now it is playing on the general circuit, or at least the "art movie" subsection thereof. I spoke to Jacquot when he attended the festival, a day after he had faced an audience asking about his work.

Questions about his filmmaking choices, he said, were often hard to answer, because he wasn't sure of the "why" of it. And by the time he finds himself answering questions at events such as the festival, he has moved on, and that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

"I'm already thinking about the next film," he says. "The old film, it's like it was made by somebody else. I can talk about the film as if it was somebody else who made it."

He certainly does so when talking of his own work, which goes back to the mid–1970s, when he made a two–part documentary about the famous psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Well, not so much about Lacan as from the horse's mouth, for these two one–hour segments contain nothing but a single talking head – Lacan's.   

Lacan's poststructuralist rereading
"Even for a French–speaker, it's very hard to understand," Jacquot notes of Lacan's poststructuralist rereading of Freud and his tendency to produce numerous gnomic utterances such as "Woman is a symptom of man." 

Yet, says Jacquot with a laugh, at the time Lacan was "a very, very famous thinker", and respect for him in France was so great that the old sage could make what might otherwise seem outrageous demands. He insisted that the two–part documentary be shown at prime time – and French TV acceded. Jacques Lacan: La Psychanalyse, parts one and two, were shown on successive Saturday nights at 8pm.

It was the first and last film about Lacan, as Jacquot says he suspected it would be. As a TV programme, it was named for the man himself, but when it was also transcribed as a book, it was called Television.

On the subject of other films of his, Jacquot is equally detached. He speaks of making a film called The School of Flesh, based on a novel by Japanese author and political suicide Yukio Mishima: "Not a good novel," shrugs Jacquot, adding modestly, "not a very good film." 

It was interesting, though, he said, to work on because it was a very Japanese story that, in the script, gets transferred to contemporary France. 

"I wanted to do another movie with Isabelle Huppert," says Jacquot, who was just then beginning a long association with one of France's premier actors. "The producer said she was interested in this project, so I said: 'Let's do it.' I didn't even read it!"

Busy filmmaker
Jacquot is a busy filmmaker, working in both cinema and TV, but the previous film of his to be seen in South Africa was Sade, a full decade ago. He acknowledges that period films often catch the imagination of the "art movie" patron ("It's like a feast, a mardi gras") more than contemporary grit does, and the figures of the Marquis de Sade and Marie Antoinette – and the era they lived in – are already familiar to filmgoers.

Hence his movie revolving around Marie Antoinette, though in this movie she is viewed from below, as it were, by one of her faithful servants who gets caught up in the royal intrigues. In Farewell My Queen, Marie Antoinette is played by Austrian–born Diane Kruger (whom cineastes may remember from Troy, in which she played Helen). 

"I originally had three or four actresses in mind," says Jacquot, "but she really wanted the role. We met up, and she said she had to play Marie Antoinette – she's Austrian, she has the same birthday, her mother's name is also Marie–Thérèse …" And, says Jacquot with a chuckle, she was behaving very much like an "anxious queen", telling the director imperiously: "If you don't cast me, your film is finished!"

I wonder about Marie Antoinette's accent in the film, because I can't hear the difference between French with a French accent and French with an Austrian accent. "When she's speaking French, you don't really hear that accent," says Jacquot, because Kruger's French is very good. "I had to ask her to emphasise it."

Another of those little choices, one of the many that go into making a movie – and which can have a big effect on the final product. But Jacquot, as he'd said, would rather deal with those little things, one by one, than try to think about the grand picture of a work of art in the making. 

"You can't make a film as an Artist with a big A – even if you're French. Even [Jean–Luc] Godard doesn't think he's a poet or a prophet. He's a bricoleur. It's like Picasso, who said, 'I don't search. I find.' You have to be sort of modest and arrogant at the same time."

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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