It’s hard to imagine a more uplifting story than The Ideal Palace. While we might celebrate the film as a return to classic French filmmaking – think Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources – what makes the story all the more poignant is that it’s basically true.
Over 33 years, Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924), a reclusive postman who lived with his wife in the south of France, built a gleaming white castle out of stones he picked up in a wheelbarrow on his postal rounds – and it still exists today.
Even Pablo Picasso was inspired by the so-called naïve art architecture, where Cheval was informed by images of Hindu temples and Swiss chalets. In 1932, Max Ernst created The Postman Cheval, a collage which is now part of the Peggy Guggenheim collection, but still, the castle remained little known, even to the French. That included The Ideal Palace’s director Nils Tavernier until he came to make the film.
“When I read the screenplay [by Laurent Bertoni and Fanny Desmares] I was shocked,” Tavernier recalls. “I went to the internet to see the piece of art and it was fantastic. We shot on location and the palace is extraordinary. You definitely have to go there and see it. Around 170,000 people visit every year.”
The son of famed French director Bertrand Tavernier, Nils, 54, who also contributed to the screenplay, had forged a career as a documentary filmmaker after starting out acting in his father’s films (as well as others). He says he still prefers making documentaries even if making The Ideal Palace was a special experience.
The kind of guy who calls a spade a spade, he says 90 per cent of French actors just want to play a version of themselves, so he cast Jacques Gamblin, an actor prepared to embody the nuances of his introverted, unfathomable character, as his lead.
The thing is, nobody really knows why Cheval built the castle, so the film romanticises his motivations. Was it for his daughter Alice, who died at three and a half, as the film suggests? (In reality he had three kids.)
“Probably, Alice was born six months before he started the creation of the palace,” Tavernier says. “It remains a mystery to me and I like that it’s a mystery. I didn’t want to provide a psychological explanation, just to tell the story. I like cinema when I understand the emotions more than anything else. The film says he made it for the love of his daughter, for the love of his wife, for the birds, the trees. He did it for fun, it was his obsession and there’s no one like him.
“He wanted his freedom and didn’t care what society thought. He followed his dreams and it’s beautiful to see how stubborn he was. He wasn’t a capitalist and didn’t want to earn money even if at the end of his life he had some money from it.”
In what might be seen as an unusual casting, Laetitia Casta, one of France’s most famous models, plays Cheval’s wife Philomena. Casta, who had been nominated for a French Cesar for her role as Brigitte Bardot in Gainsburg, came to the production after another actress dropped out. The stunning 41-year-old does great work here, subsuming herself into her role as the devoted and understanding wife. “Laetitia has become a great actress, that’s for sure,” Tavernier admits.
Recently seen as the lead in A Faithful Man directed by her husband Louis Garrel, Casta had actually made The Ideal Castle beforehand, and had come to A Faithful Man after performing Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage in the French theatre. She was in the marriage groove.
“When I received the script, I could have read the role in a classic way – as a woman supporting a man and trying to take care of him submissively,” Casta explains. “I realised instead, she is a very interesting character to talk about – her love, the intelligence of her heart, of her being able to recognise a man, to understand his feelings and to believe in him. She has this maturity and is strong enough to be happy with him. She’s very authentic.”
How was it to play a peasant?
“I come from the country, I used to live in a forest, so I was always outside. My grandfather was a forest guard, so I knew a lot about plants and nature and connected with that more than the city. I’m not a city girl. So, when the producer said to the director, ‘Are you sure she can be a country girl?’ they didn’t know I came from the country. It was easy for me.”
Are you still a country girl inside? “Oh yeah, you never forget.”
Where do you go when you want to find nature in Paris?
“Oh, I always find trees somewhere, to talk to!”
What do they say?
“Sometimes I ask them about things I’m not sure about and they help me a lot,” she responds with a chuckle. “I’m like the postman Cheval. He’s talking to the birds and the trees. It’s very poetic.”
The Ideal Palace is in cinemas December 12, 2019