Directors turn to adapting classics

'Chatterley's' success opens more screen doors

PARIS — During the Nouvelle Vague’s heyday, Gallic auteurs generally showed contempt for adapting anything approaching classic status.

The tone was set by Francois Truffaut in his influential essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” which ripped into postwar filmmakers for churning out academic adaptations of literary classics. How ironic, then, that today’s auteurs are giving their careers a much-needed boost by adapting the kind of novels they traditionally shunned.

When Catherine Breillat found out her new pic “Une vieille maitresse” — an adaptation of Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly’s classic 19th-century novel — had made the cut for this year’s main competition at Cannes, she could hardly believe it.

“Une vieille maitresse” is not only Breillat’s first pic to be selected for Cannes’ main competition but also her first stab at an adaptation in a career spanning more than 30 years and nearly a dozen pics.

“I’d wanted to adapt it (Aurevilly’s novel) for 10 years now, but for some reason I always put it off,” Breillat says. “For me, ‘Une vieille maitresse’ is the start of a new cycle; it was a pleasure for me to make, unlike my earlier films, which were often very painful. D’Aurevilly said that he wanted to write a work of literature with popular appeal, and that’s rather how I feel about my film.”

The big winner at this year’s Cesars ceremony was “Lady Chatterley,” Pascale Ferran’s passionately made adaptation of English writer D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Like Breillat’s latest effort, “Lady Chatterley” marks Ferran’s first full-length feature adapted from a novel.

It is also proving to be Ferran’s most commercially successful, selling more than 300,000 tickets at the French box office. It has been picked up for distribution in some 20 foreign territories.

Before embarking on “Lady Chatterley,” Ferran had tried and failed to find funding for an original film script she describes as being “part fantasy, part love story.”

“The television chains were not interested enough in the film, and the project had to be stopped, even though we had gone ahead and cast the film with some well-known actors,” Ferran says. “With ‘Lady Chatterley,’ it was easier to find the necessary money, but we still ended up E450,000 ($612,000) short of our intended $6.12 million budget.”

Such a lack of money is something that Ferran says a lot of French auteurs are having to face up to right now, particularly if their intention is to work from original screenplays. The advantage of adaptations is that they provide auteurs with a certain amount of liberty.

“I was helped a lot by the fact that I was making an adaptation of a famous novel,” Ferran says. “It enabled me to cast fairly unknown actors in the principal roles and for the film to be a long one.”

The Franco-German TV network Arte is busy pursuing a co-producing role in a number of literary adaptations. It co-produced not only “Lady Chatterley” but also “Don’t Touch the Axe,” Jacques Rivette’s recent adaptation of an Honore de Balzac novel, as well as Raoul Ruiz’s upcoming “Love and Virtue” based on “The Song of Roland,” and an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel “Un barrage contre le Pacifique” directed by Rithy Panh.

“It’s a trend that is occurring not only with the cinema but also in French television, with upcoming adaptations of Maupassant and Tolstoy,” says Francois Sauvagnargues, Arte’s head of fiction. “I think this is partly because it’s easier to sell the idea of a popular novel than an original screenplay to a European co-producer.”

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