My Eight Days In Jail With The Marquis de Sade

Having blogged here about my first foray into the world of French cinema – playing a French knight (in full armour) and an English noble (in velvet brocade) in Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc – I thought it time to mention the other film. Sade, starring Daniel Autueil and the mysterious Aristocrat in Green.

It was being filmed locally and they were looking for extras so I thought I’d give it a go. The casting director took one look at me and shook her head.

Non. Pas de barbe,” she said. Beards, apparently, were not the fashion in 1790’s France. “You will shave, yes?”

Do bears sit for photographs in the woods?

I assured her I’d shave. After all, for Joan of Arc, I’d had to endure a shave and a Henry V haircut.

“Good,” she said and took another long look at my face. “I think you will be aristocrat, yes?”

Naturally my first thoughts were about the dangers of being typecast. This would be my third role in the movies and my third outing as a noble. Which for a person who owns so many scruffy genes that he can’t stand in a shop doorway for more than a minute without people giving him their loose change, is quite a shock.

But I couldn’t let French cinema down. “Yes, I will be that aristocrat.”

The next day I had another surprise. I’d been expecting a day or two’s work, but the casting director came back with a request for eight. I was to be part of a small group of aristocrats who’d be used throughout the film. And could I come in for a fitting?

Try and keep me away.

I was measured and scrutinised and finally decked out in a green frock coat, waistcoat, knee britches, frilled shirt, and a cross between a cravat and bow tie. Ah, the seventies again. I was feeling kind of nostalgic.

And I was now officially the Aristocrat in Green, fellow inmate of the Marquis de Sade during his confinement at the prison palace of Picpus – the place where all the aristocrats were held while they awaited the guillotine.

Playing the part of the Palais de Picpus was an ancient Abbey in Sees which had been taken over by the film crew. It would become my second home for three weeks.

The abbey was magnificent. The seventeenth century front wing of the abbey looked more like a palace than a church. And the walled gardens were vast – extensive lawns, graveled drives, avenued paths. It was like stepping back three centuries into a world of grandeur.

Most of the filming would be done in the grounds and the lower two floors of the front wing so the upper floors were given over to the cast as waiting and changing rooms. We aristocrats – the sixteen or so strong ensemble – were given most of the second floor to sit and be aloof in while we waited to be called.

As for changing and make-up, large tents had been set up in an area of the Abbey out of shot. This would be our first point of call in the morning. Find your costume on the rack, get dressed as well as you can, stand still while a dresser applies the final touches to your cravat and costume, go to make-up, go to the Abbey waiting room, and wait.

And, being a French film set, food was not neglected. There was a chef. There was a meal tent. There was wine. And, in case you were feeling peckish, there were croissants and brioches – let them eat cake, said the director – handily placed around the set.

Of course I had one slight problem. I was the only Englishman on a French film set. It hadn’t mattered when filming Joan as I always in a group so, if I didn’t catch what the director said, I could always copy what my neighbours were doing.

Sade was different. The assistant director was very hands-on when it came to extras and would put two here, three over there, and one back there. Giving instructions to each. Sometimes we were in a garden two hundred yards away from the main action, such was his attention to detail. But I coped. Most of the instructions were pretty simple – stand here, walk over there – nothing beyond my meagre knowledge of French.

Until the third day.

They were filming a close-up of a conversation and wanted a body or two for the actor to speak to. The assistant director glanced around the ensemble, chose four of us at random and led us away. I followed, desperately trying to translate the flow of French. And failing miserably. But what the hell – I’d watch the other three and take it from there.

We were escorted to a horse-drawn carriage and ushered inside. So far, so good. The carriage (see left) took a turn around the lawns and drew up outside the Abbey doors. Everyone jumped out. The man in front of me turned left and I followed. Until I was grabbed by an assistant and pointed back towards the reception committee waiting on the abbey steps.

(float mouse over pictures for more details)

I hurried after the two remaining extras and joined them in front of the reception committee. The actor playing the prison governor spoke his line directly to me and waited … expectantly. Far too expectantly for my liking. I could feel the tension building. Was I supposed to answer? No one had said anything about this. I cast a sideways glance at the two extras beside me. They stared ahead into space. I was on my own and beginning to panic. Were they shooting dialogue or just the close-up? Should I mime a reply or actually say something? And what? I hadn’t a clue what the prison governor had just said to me. I was too busy concentrating on not falling over or farting. A restraint not shared by the horses.

Cut!

Take Two. The carriage pulled up, I got out, the extra in front sprinted to the left and I made a mental note to get out first next time. I walked up to the committee. They smiled, greeted me, I nodded and said ‘oui’ very softly. Everyone liked that. Another line came at me, another expectant pause. Shit! How long was this scene? I nodded, shrugged and said ‘oui‘. They liked that even more. I was on a roll. They kept going. I kept nodding and agreeing to everything. If there was time off for good behavior, this prisoner would be first in the queue.

Cut!

We shot the scene twice more. The extra in front leaving the carriage faster with every take and my ouis becoming more expressive. I was an extra of great range. I had no idea what I was agreeing with, but I was doing it with panache.

Cut and print! Or words to that effect. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand French – not when it was written down or spoken slowly and clearly – but my brain had a tendency to shut down under pressure, and having an expectant film crew staring at you when you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, is Pressure with a capital P. And did I mention they had a guillotine in the grounds?

As I walked back into the Abbey, I made a vow – no more speaking parts. I’d used up all my ouis for the entire film. The Aristocrat in Green would not speak again. He was officially mute.

How wrong can you be?

Next week: The soup spoon and Daniel Auteuil’s nose. Or … why the director had to confiscate my spoon.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf 

Recently released from Book View Press: French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!

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My Eight Days In Jail With The Marquis de Sade — 5 Comments

  1. Very funny! Never had an experience quite like that, but when I lived in Fontainebleau I was once trying to eat a meal in a restaurant with my two young children, while being grilled by a tableful of elderly ladies, slightly to my rear (so I had to keep twisting around), on the subject of the British royal family and the state of the Wales’s marriage. In French, of course.

    Scary…

  2. Sherwood, I actually found a stash of guillotine corpses they’d prepared for the guillotine scenes. They kept them in a store room in the east wing of the abbey. It was quite a surprise. I’d assumed they’d hire headless extras:)

  3. On the second of my two film experiences (the first involved a 5am call for a scene for which they were starting to build the set when I arrived. Sometime around 2am I got in a cab and went home, to the dismay of the director, who had liked my performance up til then (the performance that didn’t start until 7pm) I was supposed to walk in to a lower-east-side apartment building with my infant in my arms (I got the gig because I had a red coat and an infant). Walked into the same damned foyer fifteen times. No one ever told me what they wanted me to do differently each time; the baby and I were the only ones in the shot. After fifteenth take the director nodded and said “Thanks.” I still don’t know if it was because I was hopeless, or because I’d finally nailed what they wanted.

  4. Mad, I am in awe of set builders. On Joan of Arc they made the facades of two medieval streets – complete with exposed beams, roofs, rickety dormer windows – that looked so real I couldn’t tell that all the beams were plastic even when I stood and stared at them from a few inches away. They did similar work on Sade – incredibly quick, incredibly talented people.