Having experienced the joy of working with brilliant people who don’t act as prima donnas but believe, as I do, in true collaboration, I have cast Thomas Germaine and Marja Skaffari in the primary roles. After the amazingly successful work they did in Madame B, and the pleasurable process they helped create, this was an irresistible choice. Thomas came to the Netherlands for the filming of the part set there on Descartes, who spent so much of his life in that country. As his living quarters, what else could I choose than the Maison Descartes in Amsterdam, where 17th century paintings are still in the place they were made for, in the Salle des Régents? The director, Laurent Alberti, immediately allowed it, and thanks to, especially, Danielle Bourgois, it all went as smoothly as any shoot can go, despite sound issues due to road works outside.
Thomas played a very convincing Descartes, both brilliant and neurotic, engaging and then unable to engage himself. French actor Florent Houdu played Descartes’ friend Hector-Pierre Chanut, who was the ambassador of Kristina in securing the departure of the hesitant philosopher to Sweden. For the Kristina part as well as the encounter between the two figures, we had a filming week at the end of March, early April.
For this we have gained access to the fantastic castle in Nieborów, Poland, which is part of the Polish National Museum. We also had permission to film in the adjacent park. The short final shoot happened in Rome.
Childhoods, Finland and France
For the child who, upon the heroic death of her father, became queen at age 5, I went back to the wonderful child actress Astrid Törneroos. She had enjoyed playing her role as Emma’s daughter Berthe so much that she was eager to take this on. The Kristina-as-child part was shot on Åland in May 2014, when we were there for the opening of the exhibition of Madame B at the Eckerö Post och Tullhus, Åland, Finland. In August we filmed the childhood of Descartes with his sister Jeanne. For this part I found two amazing French children, of just the right age. René is played by 5 year old Ambroise Lefèbvre, Jeanne by his older sister Olympe Lefèbvre. They are the grandchildren of my friend Jacqueline Duval, who has been advising, then acting in our films for years now. I staged the interaction between them as based on Jeanne teaching René about the use of the senses. On the photograph on the right, they discover that blue and yellow make green. There are no parents.
October 2014, The Netherlands
The October week was a full-force collective effort again. Sara Pinheiro came from Prague the sound and Milja Korpela came from Tampere to do the make-up. This is as far as continuity went for the crew, for Christopher Wessels, who was in South Africa at the time, couldn’t make it. Instead, Leo van Emden was the cinematographer, with Katharina Swoboda doing the B-cam. Miriam van Oort was the set assistant and Margreet Vermeulen, as always, the project coördinator.
In the cast, we had quite some new faces as well. Ilja Nieuwland played Isaac Beeckman, Descartes’ early Dutch friend, with whom a paranoid Descartes later fell out for reasons that are hard to fathom, unless you know more about the master-philosopher’s early history and psychic makeup. Tending to paranoia and depression, he surrounded himself with young men who seemed able to cheer him up. This compelled me to enlist a number of musically gifted people, who enacted Descartes’ interest in music. As a “theoretical fiction” I imagined what would happen if Descartes had met Spinoza, which would be rather plausible, given his interest in talking with artisans in the lens trade.
Abel Streefland plays a very convincing young Spinoza, who passionately talks back to Descartes when the latter tends to pontificate a bit too convinced of his superior wisdom.
Simon Ferdinand (UK), who is finishing his PhD in Amsterdam, played Descartes’ doting valet, looking quite dashing in a Japanese grey morning coat.
When Reinier and Raj explain their respective instruments, violin and berimbau, Descartes is genuinely interested.
Descartes was also known to stay in bed until midday, working on his projects.
This also became an issue when he tries to consult a psychoanalyst. He refuses to come at 9 am. The analysis is prematurely broken off when the analyst hint at Descartes’ interest in men. Later, at the Court of Queen Kristina, he will not have the power of his convictions and will be summoned at 5 am. This - the coldest moment of the night - will cause the influenza that kills him.
The second shoot: Niewborów Palace
After the first period of filming in the Netherlands in October 2014, on which the previous page description is based, we spend another week filming the second part of the project in Niewborów Palace, a castle belonging to the National Museum of Poland. This eclectic architecture was the ideal place to situate the events at the end of Descartes’ life. Queen Kristina of Sweden, who lived at the time in a castle no longer in existence, insists on inviting the philosopher to help her with the foundation of an academy of philosophy. His arrival takes so long that, after a period of increasing impatience and frustration, Kristina loses interest. When he finally arrives, she is already busy with other things - a fleeting flirt with a musician friend, a cousin who visits, plans for an opera. The frustration mounts on both sides. Descartes, summoned to arrive at 5 am every morning, catches a cold and died of pneumonia.
Marja Skaffari plays a brilliant neurotic, a woman who cannot hold any subject in her attention span for long. She is unable to relate to people, and ends up lonely. Descartes, whom I really wish to credit with the invention of psychoanalysis - with the conception of the subject that made psychoanalysis possible - is in fact the only person who succeeds in reaching her sensibility. When he dies, the selfish queen deplores her own loss more than the famous Frenchman’s untimely demise. Thomas Germaine is shy, angry, and sick, before dying impressively.
For this shoot, a partly new cast entered the scene, and a partly new crew helped with difficult situations.
First of all, a fantastic musical quartet Con Affetto played a dreamlike welcoming tune for Descartes’ arrival. He probably imagined this welcome; the reality is much harsher. The foursome also played on other occasions, when Kristina fantasizes about Descartes composing an opera for her, and after his death two of them play a mourning duet. And the cellist Anna Podkościelna-Cyz also plays Bella, the woman Kristina is enamoured of but doesn’t manage to relate to.
My colleague Roma Sendyka from the University of Kraków was a natural First assistant Director, preempting what needed to be done, active and friendly. The same can be said for the new set assistant Marta Olesik, a PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw. She approached me with a question about Descartes just weeks before the shoot, and I was quick to enlist her. This was another one of the serendipitous events that we have come to call “merefollisms” after our experience of them in the production of A Long History of Madness, which started out as Mère Folle.
The Final Shoot: Rome, Palazzo Corsini
When it so happened that I was scheduled to teach a PhD course in Rome, the director of the Royal Dutch Institute Rome (KNIR), Harald Hendrix, suggested I could as well take advantage of the Eternal City and shoot an aftermath sequence at the Palazzo Corsini where Kristina lived and died after abdicating her throne and converting to catholicism. Harald, an amazingly efficient and friendly director of the Dutch research institute, got me permission to film in the Palazzo, even in the very room where Kristina died. So, quickly I imagined a scene. I could stage two scenes.
This was not only a brilliant location for what I immediately saw as a sequence “After-Effects”. It also allowed me to include in the project an important episode in the life of Descartes, his friendship and correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, the traumatized daughter of the “Winter King” Fredrick V. It is in his attempts to support his friend that, I contend, Descartes “invented” what later became psychoanalysis. And, given the enduring after-effect of Descartes’ ideas in the whole world, with the distortions and simplifications that are the inevitable consequences of such fame, it would make sense to include the most intimate friendship he has had in his entire life. The episode greatly contributes to humanizing the philosopher, so systematically misunderstood to be a heartless hyper-rationalist.
Thanks to Marlene Dumas, who introduced us, the famous Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege was willing to play Elisabeth, and her young friend Fleur Bongertman played her daughter Charlotte, driven mad by what American memory scholar Marianne Hirsch has termed “postmemory”: a trauma due to the silence of the traumatized parent who is incapable of talking to her children about the traumatogenic events. I staged an (imaginary) encounter between Kristina and Elisabeth, who, after Descartes’ death, comes to the former Queen for help with her daughter. This meeting was shot in the private chambers of Kristina.
Kristina, flattered by the attention and happy that her loneliness is about to be interrupted, cheerfully but shyly approaches when she hears the doorbell. Too late, she receives the biographer on the stairs, as this photograph shows.
And since we had this opportunity, we also filmed Kristina’s entrance into Rome, at the Piazza del Popolo, where an honorary Arch is still in place which had been erected to welcome her to Rome (and the Church). One thing led to another: a short encounter between Kristina and a journalist / biographer played by Mervi Appel allowed me to slip in a mention of Kristina’s foundation, at age 13, of a University, one of the earliest in Sweden. And to populate the episode some more, I could not resist the opportunity to stage a performance by Helinä Hukkataival as a mysterious figure, perhaps a ghost, who lured Kristina to the church Santa Maria del Popolo - incidentally, home to two brilliant Caravaggio paintings, still in the chapel for which they were painted. We filmed Kristina being seduced by the mysterious iconography of Catholicism at the moment between night and day. She was known to get up very early, at just that moment. But this also emphasizes symbolically the vagueness of Kristina’s enthusiasms.
Staging the encounter with the biographer and with Elisabeth made it possible to also slip in a nice small part for Harald Hendrix himself, who played a wonderful valet.
Thijs Vissia, who had been set photographer for Madame B, was willing to come to Rome to photograph the scenes. Isabelle de Mullenheim, who took over the sound editing when Sara quit the project, came to record the sound, and Christopher Wessels did his usual magic with the film camera. Now I am looking for a time slot to edit this last bit, and revise the draft edits of the earlier material. Finally, due to the regrettable absence of hair and makeup artist Milja Kopola, we were happy to work with Milja’s colleague Pia Kähkönen, also from Tampere.
Queen Kristina as a child, after losing her father. Her mother is too immersed in grief to relate to her daughter, who should have been a son.
Twenty-five yars earlier, little René Descartes talks about colours with his sister Jeanne. He, too, lost his mother, then his father abandoned him.
Musicians James Gallagher, a street guitarist; Abel Streefland, cellist; violinist Reinier Schouten; multi-instrument percussionist Raj Hoogland, and singer Dzifa Kusenuh tried to gauge his moods, cheer him up when he was depressed, calm him down when he was hysterical, and serve as “native informants” about music. Abel also played Baruch Spinoza, the younger Dutch philosopher Descartes probably never met, although such a meeting is not impossible. They do meet, and discuss, in this project. A discussion between the young artisan and the older man who was independently wealthy brings out where the limitations of Descartes’s conception of the subject lay.
But, quick on the uptake, he adjusts his views - enough to make psychoanalysis possible. Art historian Gary Schwartz played himself, as guest curator of the exhibition Emotions in the 17th Century in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, where we were also allowed to film - with thanks to director Ann DeMeester. Petros Panagiotis Orfanos had the short role of shop owner in the lens shop where Descartes meets Spinoza.
In the monumental Trippenhuis”, Descartes talks to the bust of Christian Huyghens, the brilliant son of his friend Constantijn. He is somewhat envious of the appreciation this son gets from his father, as opposed to our philosopher.
Feeling tormented by anxiety, Descartes consults a psychoanalyst, played by Henk Hillenaar. Needless to say, our philosopher has trouble accepting advice from others, and he soon leaves the treatment in a fit of anger. Still, his view of the subject made psychoanalysis possible.
Full of enthusiasm for the tensions between mind and body when emotions, coming from the soul, are expressed in the body, Descartes takes his friend Chanut (Florent Houdu) to visit an exhibition on the subject.
When a few years later, Chanut comes to persuade Descartes to go to Sweden, the affection between the two men, together with flattery, will do the philosopher in.
Wladislaw Chge’iki, manager of the Palace, plays Kristina’s valet so brilliantly that everyone who sees the footage thinks he is a professional actor. See here on the left. Due to his somewhat limited time available for learning his lines - he was acting during his normal working hours - Roma Sendyka found one of her many tasks as First assistant Director cut out for her. The combined sound of Wladek’s Polish and Marja’s Finnish sounds fantastic.
Kristina’s cousin appears, as does her mentor Axel Oxenstierna (chancellor of Sweden). For the former, an unexpected visit of Agnieszka Kalinowska, the companion of our set photographer for this shoot and also an artist (see the right-hand column of Book Projects ) who has become a friend, inspired the idea to make the scene after Descartes’ arrival fuller. She also attends to Kristina’s fantasy about music she wants to have composed - by Descartes, no less! - and briefly dances with the Queen. For the latter, a fellow diner at the Palace who, thanks to the dinner conversations, became a friend, was happy to sit on the upper floor in front of the portraits of Kristina’s ancestors - see above, where I am talking with the actor about the character. Wiesław Juszczak is an English literature professor who spends a lot of time at Nieborów. We were so lucky that he was staying there just when we were, and immediately struck a friendship.
For the crew, Christopher Wessels made the trip from South-Africa to do the cinematography again. The difference between the camera work in the two shoots is noticeable but also, makes sense, given the change in time and place. And Przemyslaw (Przemo) Wojciechowski, a professional photographer with a wide international reputation, made a great number of brilliant photographs. One is already in publication in the British magazine Photoworks Annual. The photos on this page are also his work. Here, Roma Sendyka and I are discussing the difficulties of the greenhouse as a location for two performances of the musicians, one cheerful, before Descartes’ death, and one mournful after that disaster.
Descartes’ friend Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia tries to calm her disturbed daughter Charlotte down when they roam the streets of Rome to find where Kristina lives
Johanna ter Steege as Elisabeth, about to enter the Palazzo Corsini to request a visit to Kristina
While Elisabeth is at the door of the Palace, Kristina is answering questions of a biographer, played by Mervi Appel
The writer plans to write Kristina’s life story and asks about the foundation of a university when the child Queen was only thirteen years old. Her valet (Harald Hendrix) is trying to intervene to announce Elisabeth’s visit.