Following Sand's footsteps

 

The bone-chilling winter morning fog has finally lifted, much to everyone's relief. Juliette Binoche stands on a balcony and gazes pensively at the grey waters of the Grand Canal, combing her dark hair. The camera, perched precariously on the wooden dock below, zooms in closer. The actress's alabaster profile, set off by the dusty-rose facade of the 14th-century Venetian palazzo, looks strikingly like a delicately carved cameo - until she takes a long voluptuous drag on her hand-rolled cigarette.

Juliette Binoche plays the part of 19th-century French author, George Sand - who famously masqueraded as a man to get her novels published. In this scene, Sand is unaware that her lover - notorious dandy, child genius and Romantic poet, Alfred de Musset (Benoit Magimel) - is presently on his way upstairs to their adjoining rooms at the Hotel Danieli, where he will find her door locked.

Their passionate affair, which began in Paris six months prior, in the summer of 1833, now seems doomed to failure. Sand, who has been dangerously ill with dysentery since the difficult journey to Italy, spends her days and nights holed up in the gilded Byzantine splendour of her room, feverishly writing. Musset has reverted to his former habits - opium, absinthe, and prostitutes.

"Here are two wildly-famous literary stars who recount their impossible love over and over again, in their letters and in their works," says French director Diane Kurys. "Amazingly enough, no one has ever told their story before."

It is the final week of a four-month shoot of Kurys's latest film Les Enfants du Siecle (Children of the Century), an extravagant big budget historical drama set in 1834, with no less than 2,000 extras and 40-odd costumes designed by couturier Christian Lacroix. How did Kurys, an avowed child of the May 1968 generation, and director of Diabolo Menthe (1977), Coup De Foudre (1983), find herself drawn to the Romantic era?

"I wanted to make a film about maturity," says Kurys. "About two years ago, I decided it was time to stop talking about myself and my past." Though the director acknowledges that she knew very little about Sand and Musset at the time, a few intriguing details had already caught her attention. "I read somewhere that Sand was the first woman to be fined for smoking in the street, while walking down the Champs Elysees. A few days later, I opened a newspaper and saw that a young guy had been arrested because he'd climbed to the top of Notre Dame at midnight, to recite Musset, of all people."

On a whim, Kurys had re-read Musset's autobiographical 1836 novel, Confessions of a Child of the Century, based on the 23-year-old poet's stormy liaison with George Sand, written after their break-up in Venice. Drawing on their correspondence, Musset recounts the story of a jaded young man betrayed by his mistress, who puts the blame for his debauchery and pre-Baudelairean spleen on the absurd violence of his post-revolutionary era.

"I was struck by how incredibly modern those first chapters sounded," Kurys exclaims. "People always associate Romanticism with violins, frills, and melodrama, but it's actually got a `no future/destroy' side to it. Musset's generation was about being eternally dissatisfied, about being 20. Basically, they were saying: `Down with classicism - go back to nature, to the raw essence' - not all that different from what you heard in the early 1970s."

Teaming up with her long-time friend, Murray Head, the British actor and singer, and screenwriter Francois Olivier Rousseau, Kurys launched into two full years of research before arriving at the final script. Admittedly, the director's initial fear - that the film might resemble a bombastic James Ivory-style period piece "full of black frock coats" - was dispelled after seeing the first rushes. Every detail, from the swaggering poet's cobalt-blue cape and matching top hat to Sand's pearl-grey velvet trousers or the jewelled dagger she wore around her waist, are authentic.

Indeed, as Christian Lacroix points out: "At times, we had to play down what Musset actually wore to be believable. When you look back at the archives of the real dandies of that era, it's pure Carnaby Street. Today, Musset would have been a rock star, and Sand would have been an actress," Kurys declares with a grin.

It is nearly 5 p.m. before 35year-old Juliette Binoche emerges from room No 10 on the mezzanine - George Sand's room - and descends the staircase into the sumptuous lobby of the Hotel Danieli. Freshly showered and relaxed, she sinks into one of the plush armchairs. A waiter appears brandishing a silver tray and hot chocolate is ordered. But rules are rules, even for an Oscar-winning actress: tea, and only tea, is served at that particular table. Binoche, however, belying her reputation as something of a prima donna, smiles graciously and rises. Would the provocative Sand have done the same? In Les Enfants du Siecle, the 29-year-old aristocrat-turned-struggling writer is portrayed during her most impetuous period, well before her famed liaison with Chopin.

Beyond the cliched image of a cigar-puffing rule-flaunting feminist in trousers, what essentially attracted Binoche to the role? "Her strength," the actress replies gravely, "and her love of truth.

"I think Sand had different personalities at different times in her life - people always think of her as the `nice lady from Nohant' who made jams, knitted sweaters and played nurse to Chopin, but when she first came to Paris, she was desperate to meet other writers and artists. She didn't want to feel alone any more, and also had to find a way to survive."

At the outset of the film, Baroness Aurore Dudevant, nee Dupin, has already signed two novels with her newly acquired nom de plume, G. Sand, and is working on the final pages of Lelia - a candid account of sexual frigidity and unhappy marriage that will soon become the talk of the town. The thinly-disguised autobiographical revelations do not escape the literary scandal-mongers, who deplore this new female Marquis de Sade.

In effect, Sand has done the unthinkable: she has left her boorish husband, Casimir, and her beloved country home in Nohant, dispatched her son Maurice to boarding school, then moved into in a cramped Parisian garret with her young daughter Solange.

Although Juliette Binoche had read Sand's novels while growing up ("My mother was a big fan"), she rediscovered the author in the lesser-known autobiographical works Lettres d'Un Voyageur, Story of My Life and Her and Him, all of which explore the writer's stormy relationship with Musset. "I hope this film will make people go back to the source and read Sand. I think you can really feel her through her writing," Binoche declares, distractedly twisting the handsome ruby ring she's wearing, a loan from Sand's heirs.

Binoche finds it "a little spooky" to be sleeping in Sand's actual room, with a corner view of the misty lagoon, but then, it's all part of the bizarre circumstances attached to the couple's demise and the poet's violent fits of jealousy. "Musset apparently told his brother, Paul de Musset, that while he was horribly ill in bed, he saw Sand and Dr Pagello drinking from the same wine glass, and he knew that they had become lovers," says the actress. "It's so weird because we don't know if it was just a hallucination or if Sand was already involved. At the same time, it's hard to blame her - she felt so abandoned, and she was only trying to live her life with the same freedom as he did."

SO where did it all go wrong? "I think she was ready to lose herself for him," asserts Binoche. "She was truly a generous woman but in the end, Musset behaved liked a spoilt child." Generous, incidentally, is a word that fellow co-stars and director Kurys tend to use when referring to Binoche. And although the actress acknowledges certain personal connections with Sand - her love of nature, her interest in painting, and the same unbending will when it comes to work - Binoche does not exclude the possibility of accepting other roles diametrically opposed to her own sensibilities.

"Sure, I could play a vamp, but only if there's a purpose behind going to bed with someone," she laughs. "But I don't choose my characters from the exterior - I have to know who they are inside. I'm not looking to play the beautiful girl."

As if on cue, 23-year-old Benoit Magimel ("No one has come along like him since Depardieu!" says Kurys) heads toward the table with charismatic swagger, and sits down next to the actress. He is almost voiceless with fatigue, having begun his day at 6 a.m. with his daily gruelling routine under the curling iron to replicate Musset's angelic ringlets, then spent the next six hours shooting and re-shooting a scene in a freezing, damp gondola that kept drifting off course.

"You know, some people say that Musset couldn't write any more after this relationship - that Sand destroyed him. And people hated her for that," Binoche muses, giving Magimel a complicitous smile.

Indeed, Musset's reputed masterpiece, Lorenzaccio (a play based on a story suggested by Sand) published in 1834, marks the tumultuous year of the couple's break-up in Venice and their short-lived rekindling of passion in Paris.

Ultimately, beyond pure romance, Les Enfants du Siecle might also give audiences a new take on French literary history. Alfred de Musset, the blond rosy-cheeked prodigy dubbed by his generation as "springtime itself", always claimed he wanted to be "a Schiller, a Shakespeare, or nothing". He died at age 47, half-crazed by alcohol and drugs, severely judged by Rimbaud and Baudelaire, who considered him nothing more than "a languorous undertaker" and "farcical melancholic headmaster".

As for George Sand - denigrated as an anarchist nymphomaniac in her early days and later mocked as a kind but almost ridiculously prolific author of pastoral settings and country heroines - perhaps, as director Kurys hopes, our century will better understand this decidedly complex woman whom Musset called "my dear brother".