In a close-up shot at the start of the mini-series “Voltaire in Love,” a baby François Marie Arouet (also known as French philosopher Voltaire) is pushed out of his mother’s birth canal in a scene of intense labor.
A graphic reference to Gustave Courbet’s famous painting The Origin of the World that continues to stir debate, this shot foretells both the revolutionary calling of the boy who’s just been born, and the radical style of this period drama that takes inspiration from Sofia Coppola’s “Marie-Antoinette.”
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“Voltaire in Love” is a Franco-Belgian mini-series of four episodes directed by Alain Tasma and produced and co-written by César nominee Georges-Marc Benamou, who is no stranger to adapting the lives of historical French figures to the screen, after previous projects on François Mitterrand and Albert Camus.
Produced by Siècle Productions, with France Télévisions, Umédia, Wallimage, RTBF and Pictanovo co-producing, the mini-series was first broadcast on France 2 on Feb. 8 and is being released internationally by ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) after an impressive reception in francophone countries of around 3.5 million views.
The series stars Thomas Solivérès (“The Intouchables”; “Cyrano, My Love”) as a young Voltaire and traces his beginnings as an ambitious libertine wordsmith who courts aristocratic women, defies his family, recites emotive poems, and publishes provocative pamphlets that will see him sent to Bastille prison for 11 months when he is only 20 years old.
For the most part of the series, this is not yet the story of Voltaire but of François-Marie Arouet, born into a family at the lowest rank of the nobility, who will change his name as a sign of his ambition to transgress France’s deeply entrenched social barriers in pre-Revolution times. Referred by many as one of the founding figures of the Age of Enlightenment, endorsing notions of individual freedom and religious tolerance, Voltaire’s unprecedented refusal to submit to the Catholic Church is chronicled in this series that will attract both younger and older audiences looking for a fresh and stylized take of a hugely influential figure.
With a budget reported at €7.7 million ($9.2 million) spent on lavish costumes and shooting in several French chateaux, “Voltaire in Love” has the potential to break through to international audiences thanks to ZDFE’s distribution beyond French-speaking territories.
Variety talked to Georges-March Benamou, creator, writer and producer of the show, about why a series on Voltaire is relevant in 2021 through its invoked themes of freedom of speech, religion and social class.
You have already adapted the lives of Mitterrand and Albert Camus for the screen. What led you to choose to devote yourself to Voltaire now, and how has your approach this time been different to your previous biographical projects?
I love heroes, romantic heroes, as a producer and as an author. Mitterrand was a romantic hero, Albert Camus was a romantic hero. We discover that Voltaire was a romantic hero by going behind-the-scenes of the image of him learned from school. I want to say that Voltaire is a French brand that is worldwide. Voltaire is well-known internationally, whether it’s in Russia or England and so forth. In France he took on a particular resonance at the time of the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Voltaire was re-read, young people started to read Voltaire and his Treatise on Tolerance once more. That moment was a trigger for me to propose to France Télévisions to embark on a project on Voltaire, especially as I discovered that behind the image of the old man he was first and foremost an absolutely romantic character and an adventurer. He is much more than an intellectual, he is an adventurer of ideas, and his early life is worthy of the best series in our opinion, so there was in terms of productions an international renown, a romantic life, and the spirit of what made the success of the great series of the French 19th century. Alexandre Dumas invented the series before Netflix. It seemed to us that all this made for a very interesting cocktail to write and produce.
Why is it so interesting – especially for today’s young audience – to see a mini-series about Voltaire? How does Voltaire’s life and legacy resonate today?
What was interesting was to find new codes. In France, the critics of Télérama, for example, said that we had dusted off French fiction, and thus given a dimension of modernity, of youth. For us, Sofia Coppola’s film on Marie-Antoinette showed a way of treating these subjects of the time in a modern, rock-like way. What surprised us was that the French, Belgian and Swiss audiences [where the series has been released] were really receptive. Typical catch-up numbers were multiplied by four. We reached scores of 650,000 in a seven-day period in France, which is still considerable. And in terms of audience, we were around 3.5 million, which gives an overall audience of around 4 million consolidated viewers. It is still available on Salto in France and international marketing is starting with ZDFE.
When you embarked on this project with Alain Tasma, was it a conscious choice to focus on Voltaire’s youth and formative years? Was it precisely to attract a younger audience and show Voltaire’s libertine side?
In fact, when we started to tackle Voltaire it was difficult to know where to start, because he had such a rich 85-year life. The more known aspects were already covered in many series, that is to say the affairs at the end of Voltaire’s life – where he becomes very aggressive against institutions like in the Calas affair – all this part was quite well known. While working on it we realized that his youth was much more surprising, more amorous, and that there were ingredients of a soap opera for a good series. There was at the same time an insolent genius, political battles of a thriller type, and much love and danger. For us, this mixture seemed the most relevant and promising, and we found great actors to play them.
Tell me about your research process. To what extent did you follow the factual details of Voltaire’s life to write this series?
The big difficulty with Voltaire was a very long life and a lot of events, so my role as a showrunner and producer is to use my background in rigorous journalism in the Anglo-Saxon and factual tradition, and at the same time employ my practices as a screenwriter and playwright. Dramaturgy is as important as facts. My work consisted in going to the right sources, the very good biographies, and Voltaire’s voluminous correspondence. The work was then to remove and subtract to sculpt a narrative. So all the events are true: the first love, the exile in the Hague, the plot of the Duchess of Maine, the death of Adrienne Lecouvreur. The major plot are fact-based, they have been freely adapted, but nothing has been invented.
There’s a strong sense of class contempt in the series. In particular, Voltaire’s father repeatedly warns his son to beware of spending time with the nobility and trying to scale social classes. Do you think this class hierarchy is still relevant in today’s France, or is there more fluidity?
Let’s not be naive, there are social classes and social barriers in France. Probably a boy from the banlieues [suburbs of Paris mostly inhabited by marginalized immigrants] has very little chance of getting into the Académie Française, but you have to remember that in Voltaire’s era there was absolutely no fluidity at all. This structure that will crack 60 years later with the French Revolution. There is a desire for emancipation. It is particularly unbelievable in the case of Voltaire because he is totally crazy, he is unreasonable. He thinks that a poet, a great poet, is the equal of a king, that he is a driving force that will break barriers. There’s this scene where he answers a duke: “Aren’t we all princes or poets here?” It caused a scandal, and yet he is the son of a bourgeois. It is said that Voltaire is the father of the revolution, it is not quite true, but it is this desire for social emancipation against a society that is completely stuck-up that will inspire the revolution.
Religion is also a strong theme in the series. From the opening scene, when Voltaire is and old dying man, he refuses a Catholic funeral, and so one is organized clandestinely. Why did you choose to open the series with this scene? Do you think it is important to underline, especially in France where “Laicité” (secularism) is so important, that intellectual figures are separated from the Church?
In terms of form, this scene is a tribute to Billy Wilder and “Sunset Boulevard.” It is a dead man talking. It’s my personal homage. But in terms of content, yes, it’s true that the difference with Anglo-Saxon societies is that Voltaire serves as a message to say that we must always fight against religious intolerance, whatever the religion. We saw it against Catholic integrism, and the refusal to bury actors in church ground or recognize the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Freedom has always been won against religious intolerance. It’s clear that there is a French liberal sensibility on this topic that is perhaps misunderstood in the U.S. and U.K. But it’s a way of maintaining national cohesion through notions of democracy and freedom. All this is the legacy of Voltaire.
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