In 2000 I interviewed Patrice Chereau, a French director who’d wowed me with his film La Reine Margot (1994). As in most things, I had a secret reason for the interview: he’d also played (very well) the French commander the Marquis de Montcalm in The Last Of The Mohicans – the official GREATEST EVER historical drama, made 2 years before Margot.
Chereau was above all a theatre director; his Ring Of The Nibelung at Bayreuth in 1976 was famous. I thought: what if Michael Mann, the writer/director of Mohicans, had sat up late into the night, on set in North Carolina, and passed on the secrets of historical filmmaking? That was how I idealistically thought the movies worked, from director to director. You might say it was unlikely – but what other reason could Chereau possibly have for appearing in the movie, his only American film?
I went to the overcrowded office of Artificial Eye, the distributor of Chereau’s latest film Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train, about a funeral in Limoges (which is famous, apparently, for its enormous cemetery). He had the same wary look as in Mohicans – the result, he explained, of a trapped nerve in his back. I dutifully discussed his in-the-works film of Intimacy, based on the Hanif Kureishi novel and comprised of much f***ing courtesy of Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox. Rylance was at that moment starring in Hamlet at the Globe, to which Chereau had gone the night before. How was it? That pained expression again. ‘A very strange production.’
Finally I worked the conversation round to The Last Of The Mohicans. Before I’d even finished my sentence, he said one word: ‘Terrible!’
I was reeling as the whole edifice of the historical-drama theory came crashing down about my ears. I tried telling him how much I admired his performance, which injected a chilling note of realpolitik into a rousingly romantic epic (and one not unlike, it has to be said, La Reine Margot).
He, however, would have none of it. The only reason he agreed to be in the film at all, he said pointedly, was because ‘at the time’ he was very good friends with Mohicans’ star, Daniel Day-Lewis, whose then girlfriend was Isabelle Adjani, star of Margot. The relationship ended on famously bad terms (by fax, apparently – a period detail…). Chereau left no doubt as to where his sympathies lay.
There was only one positive aspect to the shoot, he said: ‘Isabelle was there on location and while I was waiting for my part I was in the trailer talking about Queen Margot with her. I can say I was paid to talk with Isabelle in North Carolina in a trailer in the jungle.’
He paused for dramatic effect. ‘It was funny for that.’