Bille August, the two-time Palme d’Or-winning director, found his creative match with the former Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, who reinvented herself as a detail-oriented costume designer on his hit Netflix film “Ehrengard: The Art of Seduction.”
The film, which took a decade to bring to life, is nominated for three Robert Awards, the Danish equivalent to the Oscars. A playful royal scandal set in the early 19th century, “Ehrengard: The Art of Seduction” was penned by Anders August and based on a 1963 novella by Karen Blixen, the Danish baroness who was played by Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa.” The film revolves around Cazotte, a young portrait painter who considers himself an expert on love matters and is challenged by the Grand Duchess to seduce a young woman, as well as help her secure an heir.
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Margrethe II, who just stepped down from her throne citing health reasons, worked for free on the feature and designed 51 costumes along with 74 decoupages for the film. “Ehrengard” is produced by SF Studios and JJ Film, a Danish company whose credits include the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired short films “The Snow Queen” and “The Wild Swans,” and who also tapped the Queen as production designer.
Having recently wrapped the seven-month shoot of the series “The Count of Monte Cristo,” August spoke to Variety about his fruitful collaboration with the witty Queen, his lengthy track record with period drama and people’s love for royal families.
How did you and the Queen get together on this film?
The Queen and I started discussing the production design and costume for the film 10 years ago. When I saw her decoupages I immediately began to understand the cinematic space of the script. So I started meeting with the Queen regularly to discuss the script and characters; we would go over each scene she made the decoupages for. It was a fruitful collaboration and an exciting process because we had different approach and ideas — something fresh came out of it.
Did the Queen put some of her personality into her work?
Yes, surely the atmosphere of the film is somewhat burlesque and it has to do with the decoupages made by the Queen. She’s got a great sense of humor and wanted to keep it witty, cross the boundaries. I admired her creativity and level of committment because a Queen has a very strict schedule and loads of official duties, but this is Margrethe II’s big passion and she dedicated a lot of her free time to work on this film. That’s really special. Not many royals are such creative forces.
Would you say that “Ehrengard: The Art of Seduction” was a true collaborative effort between you and Margrethe II?
Yes, she was very involved in scripts and in everything, even in the casting. We looked at actors together. She was supposed to be with us during filming but with all her duties she wasn’t able to. But she was there throughout the editing process.
Do you think she might become a full-time costume designer now?
She has to decide what she will do next and she does have a back problem, but I think she will focus on creating.
Why did the movie take so long to get made?
Sometimes projects can take forever because of difficulty to raise the financing, the scale of production design… It’s not cheap. Fortunately, Netflix understood what the project was about and after they met the Queen and sat down with her, they said, “Let’s do it.” It was a great thing to have enough time to prepare and design all the costumes.
How was it work with Netflix? Is it something you’d consider on another film?
After the pandemic, we’ve seen that feature films are having a tough time in movie theaters so streamers have started taking over some of these movies. Working with a streaming service has a lot of advantages — when it takes a long time to get financing together, it’s difficult to keep the energy and retain the cast. By the time you get the financing, you’ve lost the cast. With Netflix, things can move along much quicker.
How was it returning to Denmark to make “Ehrengard: The Art of Seduction” after working abroad for so long?
I’ve been doing films in South America, Asia and Denmark, but it doesn’t matter where you’re shooting; it’s where the story takes me. The most important thing is to work with great actors and a great crew. I don’t want prima donnas, no egos, so that we’re all the same page.
Why do you think “Ehrengard: The Art of Seduction” has been so successful on Netflix and with critics?
Because it’s charming, it’s witty. It’s got a special atmosphere, its own identity. And it’s about royals. Now that the Queen has decided to abdicate, people are even more drawn to it.
Where do you think this fascination for royal families come from?
People love royal families the way they love fairy tales. In Denmark, having this royal family gives this feeling coherence and keeps the country together. It gives people the feeling that they’re part of something bigger.
Margrethe II, is particularly beloved. Why do you think?
Yes, she’s very popular because she’s wise, charming and outspoken. I believe royals are loved as long as they behave the way they’re expected to. People today feel that since these royals are paid with taxpayers’ money, they should give the best of themselves and deliver. And if they happen to misbehave, people are unforgiving.
You’ve done so many period movies, and just recently the series “The Count of Monte Cristo,” an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel. Do you miss doing contemporary films?
It’s a complete coincidence. It’s not like I only want to do period drama. As for the “Count of Monte Cristo,” I just finished seven months of filming and editing this fall. But ultimately, it’s about the story. Whether it’s period or contemporary drama or science fiction, it’s about human relationship. That said, I’d like to make a contemporary film soon.
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