Lines of Wellington
Valeria Sarmiento directs a spectacular Napoleonic saga, originally planned by Raul Ruiz, with a massive cast including John Malkovich as the Duke of Wellington.
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Valeria Sarmiento and her late husband Raúl Ruiz were long-standing collaborators on each other’s directing projects. Last year, following Ruiz’s death, Sarmiento took over directing the hugely ambitious Lines of Wellington. A companion piece to Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, also scripted by Carlos Saboga, this is more a realist panorama in the War and Peace mould. The sumptuously mounted drama is set during the Napoleonic Wars, and follows assorted characters serving in, or following, the Portuguese-British forces as they try to reach the fortified lines built by the Duke of Wellington. At once sombre historical contemplation and rip-roaring costume piece, this ensemble epic introduces us to soldiers, scholars, widows, waifs and Wellington himself, played with lofty relish by John Malkovich. Sarmiento commands the campaign with grandeur, panache and mischief, with cameos from Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Michel Piccoli adding to the overall class.
At what stage was the project when you took it over from Raul Ruiz’ working table?
Raul had received the script from Carlos Saboga and he had annotated it with three little changes that he had told him about. He had also made recommendations about the musical themes that he wanted the musicians to work on. Meanwhile, we had been to Lisbon on a few recces and he had made the most of it to choose some of the actors. He fell ill just afterwards and was not able to do any more.
Did you set yourself a certain respect of his style in directing the film, by forbidding yourself from doing things that he would not have done?
We lived together for 40 years and I edited two thirds of his films. I am therefore very familiar with his style, but I never intended to make the film as Raul would have made it. I took his preparatory work into consideration, including the changes that he had asked for and the music that he had chosen, but apart from that, I made the film my own way.
And did you keep the actors that had already been chosen?
There were indeed some actors that Raul had already chosen. I kept them, but not necessarily in the same roles. We held a new casting call, to which we added actors loyal to Raul who wanted to pay homage to him by appearing in the film. We all thought of him a lot on the film set.
As a Chilean, to what extent did this story of Portugal’s invasion resonate with you?
For me, this historical episode is of course very distant. I therefore tried to tie together things that were more prone to involve my own feelings, such as the role of women in the film or my family’s experience during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. But, beyond the intimate connection, I wanted this film to inspire more general, political reflection. It’s important to remember that Europe was built on millions of dead bodies and, in these times of crisis, to make a film like this is also to make a political film.
In this story of resistance, the painter played by Vincent Perez is an artist who is not free to work as he wishes. Can we see this as a reference to the current situation of the Portuguese film industry?
It’s not easy to make films in Portugal at the moment, and we have been through the same situation in Latin America. This painter represents an artist with a personal vision confronted with a system that is holding him back. But the story of this Swiss painter, Henri Lévêque, is true. He was commissioned to paint landscapes before the troops arrived as a record of the territory. He was doing reconnaissance work. The production designer, Isabel Branco, was greatly inspired by these paintings for the artistic aspect of the film and its costumes. She reproduced the colour palette used by the painter.
Born in 1948 in Valparaiso, Chile, she studied philosophy and filmmaking at the University of Chile in the 1960s. Based in Paris since 1974, her substantial body of documentaries and feature films as writer-director often address Latin American gender politics, but she is at least equally well known as the regular editor and collaborator of her late husband Raoul Ruiz (1941-2011) with whom she shared the Chilean Art Critics Circle’s Bicentennial Award for Cinema in 2010. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988, her work as a film editor has also been utilised by the likes of Luc Moullet and Robert Kramer.
1972 Los minuteros [s] [co-d Raoul Ruiz]; Poesía popular: Le teoría y la práctica [s] [co-d Raoul Ruiz]; Un sueño como de colores [doc s]
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