Love and death a la Provencal

Grand passion, plague, violence and lovely costumes: the director of Cyrano is at it again. Sheila Johnston talks to Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The day that Jean-Paul Rappeneau passed his school-leaving exam, his father gave him a movie camera. The same evening he started writing a script, which he polished off that weekend. One week later, he was shooting his little movie. "I was a speed freak," he says. But then some mischievous genie must have placed a spell upon the director, because his output slowed down dramatically. He has made six features in a 30-year career.

"Eh, oui," sighs Rappeneau, who, thanks to the phenomenal success of his last film, Cyrano de Bergerac (made a mere seven years after the one before), cuts a higher international profile than this meagre output might suggest. "My investment in my films is so complete - they become a matter of life and death to me while I'm shooting them - that when I come back down to earth it takes time before I can start again. My first instinct is always to say no. Everything starts with a series of negative reactions, which then suddenly turns into a positive one. I say, no, no, no, and then - I don't know why - suddenly, at a certain moment, it turns into yes!"

After Cyrano, Rappeneau's agent (no doubt reluctant to wait another seven years for his next round of commission) took him to lunch to find out what he now had in mind. The director named an obscure novel called The Horseman on the Roof, knowing full well that the rights were spoken for. He spent the next two years in an agony of indecision, hovering between a book by Louis Aragon and several other projects. Then he heard that The Horseman on the Roof had become available - "and bang, the train left the station".

Cyrano is a famous and familiar old warhorse of the French theatre, but Rappeneau's next choice was more surprising. It was little known outside France (the English translation has been out of print for some years, although a new one is being prepared) and, even in his homeland, the writer, Jean Giono, had fallen into obscurity. "He died in 1970, and then went into a sort of limbo," the director says. "He was seen as a provincial writer. When I made The Horseman, I realised most people hadn't read it. But 1995 was the 100th anniversary of his birth, so there were a lot of exhibitions and conferences, and all his books were republished. And by the end of the year people started to say he was unjustly neglected.

"He was an autodidact, a cobbler's son. He was born in Manosque (a small town in the part of Provence where his work is set), he spent his life in Manosque, and he died in Manosque. He left school very early and worked as a clerk in the town bank. There, he read the Greek classics. And in his own writing, he transformed Provence into a sort of mythological country peopled by ancient heroes. He was an extraordinary stylist.

"Then he was imprisoned at the beginning of the Second World War for pacifism, and at the end of the war he was accused of being a collaborator, sent to prison, again in his own town, and forbidden to publish anything for several years. He became a misanthrope and completely changed his style: from then on he decided to write only about the 19th century. And the first book he wrote in this new manner was The Horseman on the Roof."

This was a high-romantic adventure about the unrequited love of a young Italian hussar for a beautiful noblewoman, and was set in France in the 1830s against the background of a cholera epidemic. It was published in 1951, within four years of Albert Camus' The Plague. "Both writers used the plague as a metaphor for the war, as a way of revealing the human baseness they'd experienced," Rappeneau says. And Giono, who thought he had been made a scapegoat, took his revenge on his fellow townsfolk by having them die, fictionally, in horrible ways. "It seems some people were a bit shocked by the vision of death in my film. But it was nothing compared to the book."

Giono's Provence in no way resembles the sybaritic south of France as popularised by Marcel Pagnol and Peter Mayle. "Giono was born the same year as Pagnol. They were friends, but people kept comparing them and in the end they fell out. Pagnol's was the smiling face of Provence: pastis, plane trees, boules..." Giono's books are set up country, in the foothills of the Alps, where the terrain is more rugged, life is harsher and the people more unforgiving; it looks spectacular in The Horseman, but it's a stark, sombre beauty. "As Giono used to say, "C'est pas gai, la Provence!" explains Rappeneau, who seems to find the writer's gloominess amusing.

He has now made two grand romances in a row, both of them unfulfilled at the end of the story, both about confident warriors who are full of bravura in battle but paralysed by the idea of physical contact with the woman they love. The Horseman, without giving anything away, climaxes in what must be one of the most perversely chaste and morbid love scenes in all cinema. Rappeneau started out in a comic vein, but his gaze seems to have darkened. "It's my personal archaeology. It reminds me of... things," he says mysteriously. He doesn't elaborate.

He began his career at the time of the nouvelle vague, but, while everyone who knew how to look through a viewfinder was busily cranking out his or her first film, Rappeneau sat tight and quietly bided his time, writing screenplays with and for such eminent non-New Wavers as Jacques Becker, Louis Malle and Rene Clair.

He turned down several offers to direct, one from Claude Chabrol ("I saw him again recently and he greeted me with 'Ah, here comes the madman!' "), and one to make a promotional film hymning the quality of life in the ugly and depressed high-rise public housing estates that had sprung up outside Paris - "a rosy version of La Haine". Jean-Luc Godard, that great opportunist, was also trying to get a first feature off the ground and promptly buttonholed him for a drink in Montparnasse to suggest they make the film together. Rappeneau cogitated for a day and then said no, which was probably as well, since the result was unlikely to have been the sunny propaganda movie the producer had intended.

Anyway, the two men would have made an improbable alliance: there's not much in common between Godard's jagged, modernist political films and those of Rappeneau, who, when he finally got around to directing (he was 33 when he made his first film, La Vie de Chateau, in 1965), turned out to have a penchant for historical drama in the traditional manner.

Two ideas are generally trotted out when French critics write about his films, both of them designed to make him see red. Number one, that they represent a stuffy, old-fashioned cinema du patrimoine, the French equivalent of Britain's "heritage cinema". "I'm not trying to be some kind of archivist - patrimony is a lawyer's word! It belittles the role of dream and creativity in my work," he grumbles.

The other is that he's a big spender: one reason it took him six years to make his second film, a jolly French Revolution romp with Jean-Paul Belmondo called Les Maries de l'An II, was the high cost of the project. Now The Horseman on the Roof is being tagged the most expensive French film ever made, a designation that Rappeneau does not view as a compliment. "The most expensive film compared to what?" he says. "If you translated into current rates the budgets of Les Enfants du Paradis, The Wages of Fear or Lola Montez, they'd easily overtake The Horseman on the Roof. The French press latched on to that and it annoyed me enormously." Time for one final question, which barely seems worth raising, but I ask it anyway: does Rappeneau have another film in prospect? And his answer is... "no".

n 'The Horseman on the Roof' will be reviewed by Adam Mars-Jones tomorrow, and is on release from Friday