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Swiss actor, director and photographer Vincent Perez (The Crow: City of Angels, queen of the damned, Cyrano de Bergerac) is projecting his latest, The edge of the bladea costume piece about duels and honour, in the Horizons section of the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
His fourth directorial feature is set in Paris in 1887, when dueling was still common despite being prohibited by law. It premiered at the Munich film festival just one day before showing at the big film event in the Czech spa town. Perez also co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, French actress and screenwriter Karine Silla Perez.
The edge of the blade It focuses on Clément Lacaze (played by Roschdy Zem), a master swordsman and teacher at a fencing school whose nephew is challenged to a duel by the more experienced Colonel Berchère (played by Perez himself). Meanwhile, feminist Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre (Doria Tillier) fights for women’s rights and social change.
Perez has spoken The Hollywood Reporter Why he decided to make a film about Swordplay, how his research saw him dive deep into the history of dueling, the connections between his historical film and modern life, and how he approached doubles roles of director and actor.
Why did you want to explore the theme of duels, and why now?
I always thought there was a lack of a film about it, especially in France, because dueling was really a part of daily life for centuries – from the Middle Ages – and it stuck until WWII. And I had that dream of making a movie about it. But it took me years to find the right window, and then I almost forgot about it. Then a friend of mine, Jean Dujardin (The artist), told me: “Vincent, I have a duel in the film I’m doing with (Roman) Polanski (in An officer and a spy). You should make a film about duels.” So she reopened that Pandora’s box. And I went home and started researching.
I found these amazing documents, a sort of dueling diary between 1881 and 1889, a list of all the duels that were happening in those years. And it was incredible. It’s like a duel every day. And it shows the reasons why and the people involved and the names of the witnesses, most of them written by hand. I saw that one name that was always coming back: Tavernier, the character played by Guillaume Gallienne in the film. I found out that this tavernier was very well known at the time for his knowledge of dueling, how to set up a duel. So he wrote a book called The art of dueling. Everything was in it: all the protocols, how to prepare for a duel, what to eat, what to put on the legs when they are sore, how to choose a good baton, what qualities he has to have and then 100 ways of training and 100 ways to have a duel with the sword, 100 ways to fight with guns because there are 100 ways and the saber, which was for the military. So I discovered that world. There are no stories in the book, there are no characters. But the protocol was very precise.
From there I started reading the press of the time, I started looking at the stories about duels and I discovered many, many, many. And slowly the characters were born quite naturally. Then I read about sword masters. They were like Marvel superheroes at the time. They were like heroes and people looked at them like that, because they were brave and had great strength and power.
How about your strong female character, Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre?
Through my research in the press, I discovered Mary-Rose. She really existed and I found out that she was involved in dueling and that she created the first women’s fencing league and that she had someone who was destroying her reputation through The little newspaper, a very famous newspaper at the time. He (played in the film by Damien Bonnard) was always teasing her, destroying her reputation, telling everyone in the press that she was crazy and all that. And I was like, oh my god, this is so amazing. And then I found out that she provoked him and challenged him to duels many times and that she refused. So I slowly built the story with my wife.
It’s a historical film, but during your introduction here in Karlovy Vary, you hinted that there are parallels to our time...
When you make a period film or if you make a film, it has to resonate with our life, life today. There are so many topics in the story that resonate. Like the idea of your reputation or defending your reputation or your dignity. What is the most feared thing in social media? It’s destroying your reputation. So this is still there today.
Now, I guess, what we could say is instead of going into sword fights, now you hire lawyers, but it’s the same idea. And then once the duel was over, the problem was fixed. And today with the lawyer it should be the same thing. So there was some resonance, which I thought was very interesting.
I also wanted to explore that male world, very masculine and misogynistic. And to confront that there is a woman who really existed at the time and was facing that world. Indeed, she is the embodiment of modernity in film.
It seems to have been way ahead of its time.
She was. Even the feminists of that time didn’t like her, because they thought she was crazy to demand the right to vote, to demand equal wages, and that she was saying that women should be able to wear pants, that the weather was forbidden. And she wanted to defend her honor, but women at the time couldn’t define their honor, because they had no honor. Their honor was in the hands of her husband when they were married, or her brother when they were not married.
It was very modern indeed. She was a composer and wrote in the press, and she wanted the right to be a free woman. I’m more attracted to her freedom than the feminist side of her. This is what I wanted to portray in the film.
The film industry has often faced criticism for misogyny and sexism. Do you think there’s been any progress on that and the way women are portrayed and treated?
Obviously, there is a change. I think that’s a good thing, and you have wonderful female directors that I admire and see more and more. It’s great.
But I didn’t want to make a feminist film. The idea was really a movie about a very specific moment, which is fascinating. I think it’s also a funny movie. It’s always been important to me that I can enjoy watching the movie and feel things, like danger. And I feel like at the end of the movie there’s a kind of catharsis, you feel like you’ve been through all that fighting and something is released in you as an audience.
THE Blade edge Includes various forms of dueling, with épées, pistols and sabers on horseback and in various locations. What was the hardest to film?
They were all very difficult because I wanted them to be realistic. So the actors worked for months to prepare me and I had to go back to training because I’m also acting in the film and I enjoyed many duels in the cinema. That’s why I made this film: I made more than 30 duels in films and some of them are quite well-known duels. So I had that passion for that exercise and I just wanted to go a little further because I felt like there was a lack of a movie on that topic. But the most difficult duel, to tell the truth, was the last one with the horses.
Is it difficult to direct yourself?
Well, I took the advice of one of the masters, Patrice Chéreau, who directed me in the film about Queen Margot. He said, “You shouldn’t double down on yourself. You must be the same. This is what I did. When I went in front of the camera, I was also directing a certain way.
What can we see from you next? I heard there was a project about it Bolero where your fans might see you?
As an actor, yes, with (writer and director) Anne Fontaine. It’s finished and I think it’s going to be a very good movie about the making of Bolero by Ravel. And I have something else to shoot this summer. So I’m active as an actor but I’m also preparing my next film. It’s too soon, but I have a project I’m working on with Jeremy Thomas, the wonderful British producer, and other things. I love the writing process. I love waking up and going straight to writing. This is truly my favorite moment.