A filming accident left French equestrian stuntman Bernard Sachse paralyzed below his tenth vertebra. But his career is busier than ever.
TOURLY — It was summer, and night had just fallen on the Château de Falaise. The Count of Brionne character got up from the table and said, "I feel vicious, fierce days rapidly coming, days where the beast will not have any more respect for itself, or for its kind." Then he jumped onto the back of Atrevido, a Portuguese horse that was nervously pawing the ground, and galloped away.
Suddenly, the Count tumbled down in the dirt, struck and "killed" by an arrow, while his horse kept on galloping, alone. Up in the stands, a few hundred people shuddered with dread. This reconstitution of William the Conqueror's life started in a very dramatic way.
During the entire summer of 1987, stuntman Bernard Sachsé fell off his horse again and again between the walls of the Château de Falaise in northwestern France. He acted out the assassination twice a week, on Friday and Saturday evenings, and also on the eve of July 14, the French National Day.
At the time, the gifted equestrian was beginning a promising career as a stuntman that also allowed him to fulfill his passion for training horses. He was 24 years old, in great form and full of plans.
Fortune was finally starting to favor him after a difficult and challenging youth. He lost his father when he was just 3 years old and his mother at 17, in a car accident. But fortune didn’t favor him long.
Seven years was as long as his career lasted without tragedy. In August 1994, during filming in Switzerland and just three months after his marriage, he was asked to make a horse he didn’t know rear up and fall backwards, with him on it. There was one too many takes. The horse got back up. Sachsé didn't. Lying in the grass, he felt as if he had been "hit in the stomach by a bus." His spinal cord was mangled.
Today, the former all-terrain knight wears a cowboy hat and drives around on a quad bike in the charming Tourly stable, northwest of Paris.
"Months of work" for one stunt
It was here, deep in the countryside, halfway between the towns of Cergy-Pontoise and Beauvais, that Sachsé moved in 1999 with his wife and children, to give private lessons to owners whose horses they keep. His stuntman past seems far away. It was brief but full.
Spotted by Mario Lurashi, who has handled 90% of horse stunts in French cinema for decades, Sachsé has appeared in more than 30 movies, from Les Visiteurs to The Horseman on the Roof, Germinal and The Return of Casanova. But he also worked with choreographer Maurice Béjart at the Grand Palais in Paris, and has appeared in plays such as the adaptation of Hamlet by the theater director Patrice Chéreau, who died in October 2013.
"He was a remarkable man," Sachsé says of Chéreau. "The alchemy between us worked well. So on the set of La Reine Margot, he asked for me when he learned I was available. I did lots of little things. You can see me stealing a horse in a back alley, then in the hunting scene, or when the king falls over, to keep his horse on the ground. What I really enjoyed with Chéreau was that he didn't just see me as a technician."
He was unlike other film directors who offer "15 takes to an actor for one line, but ask the stuntman to make it on the first go," without considering the difficulty of the work.
Sachsé hasn't forgotten how he prepared, with two other equestrians, to jump exactly at the same moment on the deck of a ship for Revenge of the Musketeers. It was tricky, dangerous, and required "months of work" to adjust everything perfectly. The shooting was done in a hurry, on the last day, by a worn out and edgy Bertrand Tavernier.
It all ended abruptly in August 1994 with the accident. Sachsé was taken to the Raymond Poincaré Hospital in Garches near Paris and was was diagnosed as a D10 paraplegic.
"No more legs, no more hips, no more abdominal muscles, nothing left under the tenth vertebra," he says. "As if I had a large epidural."
The doctors tried to explain to him he would do better to forget his work with horses. They told his wife Agnès that considering a divorce would be normal in this "unbearable" situation.
They didn't know they were dealing with an extraordinarily strong couple and a stubborn man who still "needed adrenaline." The following year, with Agnès still at his side, Sachsé became the French disabled champion in horse training. Then, at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, he finished fourth in individuals, and won the bronze medal in the team competition.
To tell how he so prodigiously beat every diagnostic and struggled for years to get the compensation he was due, he published a book in 2005, Sur mes quatre jambes (On My Four Legs), which sold a modest 7,000 copies.
Now, a film by French film director Denis Dercourt, En équilibre (Balance), is loosely based on his story. Rousing himself from his wheelchair to climb onto his quad bike, Sachsé explains that the title "sums up well what I've always looked for in life and on a horse. But, with what happened to me, by definition, balance is the first thing that was destroyed. The aim now is to find it in another way."
Yoga helps him "virtualize" each movement and understand that "life is a big game with the brain." But nothing has been easy. Nothing ever is when you suffer from cervical osteoarthritis and tendonitis in the elbows, when you're "packed with pain," and when just taking a piss is an ordeal that repeats itself every three hours.
"I've lived with human misery," Sachsé says while he pulls himself with a hoist onto the mechanical horse with which he warms up every day before mounting Piropo. "I still do actually."
He says he works "with a body that's constantly against me," which some people find crazy. "But I don't do it to impress anybody," he says. "What I'm interested in is very simple: It reinvigorates me a bit. And permanent frustration is maddening. Instead of drowning my sorrows in alcohol or drugs, I headed towards a positive side. The art of living is just that: surfing your existence in a very complex balance between voluntarism and letting go. If you resist, you go under the wave. I have to ride the wave a bit better than others."
Know how to fall
Of course, "riding like a clown" to earn a living is now out of the question. It doesn't prevent him from noticing that being a stuntman today has changed. "Lots of guys come from eastern countries now," he says. "They've been trained by the French. Before, they didn't know anything."
He says good stuntmen aren't necessarily good horse riders. "Fooling around with animals and making them fall backwards is different. I didn't particularly enjoy doing it. I don't like what debases horses, like that guy who made his walk on its knees," he says.
With his pockets filled with sugar lumps, he has definitely adopted the golden rule decreed last century by Etienne Beudant: "Ask often, be happy with little and reward always." Thanks to this, he got what he wanted, when he wanted. Sachsé, however, hasn't completely put his old job behind him.
When he isn't teaching at home, when he's not composing soundtracks on his piano, when he's not giving lectures on equestrian art or seminars for professional equestrians in Switzerland or actors in Brittany, and when he's not testing a mechanical horse designed for the rehabilitation of disabled people, he sometimes returns to his "adjusting."
For instance, he coached actors Sami Frey, Mathilde Seigner and the horses that appear in Danse avec lui (Dance With Him).
"If the horse goes berserk"
He also supervised everything for En équilibre, making actor Albert Dupontel rehearse so he could play everything without an understudy. It was also Sachsé who, off screen and in his wheelchair in the straw, "excited" a horse so it would become dangerously agitated.
High precision, there again, that French cinema will always need. "It's important to search for spectacular results but without forgetting security," he says. "But when Cécile de France, who's a novice, must do a scene on a horse, it can very quickly end in tragedy. If the horse goes berserk, she falls and is disfigured after three days of shooting, the whole film is screwed. The pressure level is real. It's at least as risky as doing a stunt yourself."
When you see Sachsé in the Vexin region dancing with Piropo, a beautiful, grey 700-kilo stallion he trained himself, it's impossible to imagine this guy is disabled. And impossible to understand how he does it.