Swiss actor, director and photographer Vincent Perez (The Crow: City of Angels, Queen of the Damned, Cyrano de Bergerac) is screening his latest, The Edge of the Blade, a period piece about dueling and honor, in the Horizons section of the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
His fourth feature as a director is set in Paris in 1887, when duels were still common despite being prohibited by law. It premiered at the Munich film festival just a day before screening at the big cinema event in the Czech spa town. Perez also wrote the screenplay with his wife, French actress and screenwriter Karine Silla Perez.
The Edge of the Blade focuses on Clément Lacaze (portrayed by Roschdy Zem), a sword master and teacher at a fencing school whose nephew gets 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 talked to The Hollywood Reporter about why he decided to make a movie 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 the dual roles of director and actor.
Why did you want to explore the topic of duels more deeply, and why now?
I’ve always felt that there is a movie missing about that matter, especially in France, because dueling was really part of everyday life for centuries — since the Middle Ages — and it stuck around until the Second World War. And I had that dream to make a film about it. But it took me years to find the right window, and then I kind of forgot about it. Then a friend of mine, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), told me: “Vincent, I have a duel in the film that I’m doing with (Roman) Polanski (in An Officer and A Spy). You should make a film about the duels.” So he reopened that Pandora’s box. And I went back home and started to do research.
I found these incredible documents, a kind of agenda of duels between 1881 and 1889, a list of all the duels that were happening during those years. And it was incredible. It’s like one duel every day. And it shows the reasons why and the people involved and the witnesses’ names, most of it was handwritten. I saw that a name that was coming back all the time: 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 duels, how to organize a duel. So he wrote a book called The Art of the Duel. Everything was in it: all the protocols, how to prepare yourself for a duel, what to eat, what to put on your legs when they are sore, how to choose a good witness, what qualities he has to have, and then 100 ways of training and 100 ways of having a duel with the sword, 100 ways of fighting with pistols 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 in it. But the protocol was very precise.
From there, I started to read the press from that time, I started to look at the stories about duels and I discovered many, many, many. And slowly the characters came about quite naturally. Then I read about the sword masters. They were like the Marvel superheroes at the time. They were like heroes and people were looking at them like that, because they were courageous 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 discovered that she was involved in duels and that she created the first female fencing league and that she had someone who was destroying her reputation through Le Petit Journal, a very famous newspaper at the time. He (portrayed in the movie by Damien Bonnard) was always making fun of her, destroying her reputation, saying to everyone in the press that she was crazy and all this. And I was like: oh my god this is so incredible. And then I discovered that she provoked him and challenged him many times to duels and that he refused. So I slowly built up the story with my wife.
It’s a historical film, but during your introduction of it 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, today’s life. 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 is to have your reputation destroyed. So this is still there today.
Now, I guess, what we could say is that instead of going into duels with swords, now you hire lawyers, but it’s the same idea. And then once the duel is done, then the problem was solved. And today with the lawyer it’s supposed to be the same thing. So there was some resonance, which I thought was very interesting.
I also wanted to explore that male world, very male-ish and misogynistic. And to confront that there is a woman that really existed at the time and was confronting that world. In fact, she’s the incarnation of modernity in the film.
She seems to have been way ahead of her time.
She was. Even the feminists of that time didn’t like her, because they thought she was crazy to ask for the right to vote, to ask for equal salary, and that she was saying that women should be able to wear pants, which was forbidden at the time. And she wanted to defend her honor, but women at the time couldn’t define their honor, because they didn’t have any honor. Their honor was in the hands of the husband, once they were married, or the brother when they weren’t married.
She was really very modern. She was a composer and writing in the press, and she wanted the right to be a free woman. I’m more drawn to her freedom than her feminist side. That’s what I wanted to portray in the film.
The film industry has often faced criticism for misogyny and sexism. Do you feel there’s been progress in that and in the way women get portrayed and treated?
Obviously, there is a change. I think it’s a good thing, and you have wonderful female directors that I admire, and you see more and more. It’s great.
But I didn’t want to do a feminist film. The idea was really a movie about a very specific time, which is fascinating. I think it’s also an entertaining film. It’s always been important for me to be able to have fun watching the film and feel things, like danger. And I feel that there’s some kind of catharsis at the end of the film, you feel that you went through all those fights, and something is released in you as an audience.
The Edge of the Blade includes various forms of duels, with épées, pistols and sabres on horseback, and in various locations. Which one was the most difficult to film?
They were all very difficult because I wanted them to be realistic. So the actors worked for months in order to get ready, and I needed to go back into training myself because I’m also acting in the film and I did like a lot of duels in cinema. That’s why I made this film — I have done more than 30 duels in films, and some of them are quite well-known duels. So I had that passion for that exercise and just wanted to go a bit further with it because I felt that there was a movie missing about that topic. But the most difficult duel, to tell the truth, was the last one with 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 yourself. You have to be the same.” That’s what I did. When I went in front of the camera, I was also directing in a certain way.
What can we see from you next? I heard there was a project about Bolero in which your fans may get to see you?
As an actor, yes, with (writer and director) Anne Fontaine. It’s done, and I think it’s going to be a very beautiful film about the making of Bolero by Ravel. And I have something else shooting this summer. So I’m active as an actor but I’m also preparing my next film. It’s too early, but I have a project that I’m working on with Jeremy Thomas, the wonderful British producer, and some other stuff. I love the process of writing. I love waking up and going straight into writing. That is really my favorite moment.