The woman who kills bulls

The Mail on Sunday magazine, August 1 1989

Ernest Hemingway believed that bullfighting was a great and uplifting art, a sacred ritual in which courage, honour and death were all perfectly blended into the most tragic and most inspiring of spectacles. But Ernest Hemingway never saw a bullfight on a Friday night in Frontignan.

Frontignan is a dump. To get there, you drive northwards from the Spanish border for several hours into the armpit of the French Mediterranean where poor Parisians who cannot afford the Riviera take their holidays, and when you come to a scruffy beach lying in the shadow of a vast chemical works with a road full of roaring traffic rushing by, you have found Frontignan, and just there, at the foot of the chemical works, where the railroad track cuts across the motorway, you can see the humble arena which Ernest Hemingway never saw, a small circle of wooden planks laid out on scaffold poles under a couple of flood lights with a black wooden board cut in the shape of a bull outside.

This particular Friday night, there is a fair at Frontignan right next to the arena and, around half past nine, those who have had enough of five different kinds of Michael Jackson all belting into each other at full volume, start to drift across there. Soon there are several hundred of them, scattered along the wooden boards – more than usual because, this particular night, there is a star in Frontignan.

This star is Marie-Sara Bourseiller and in Frontignan they want to find out whether it is true what they say about her, about this woman who kills bulls for a living. After all, it may be rubbish. Bullfighting has always been a man’s business. How could a woman be brave enough or strong enough to take on an animal that weighs half a ton, that covers ground faster than a horse, that has been bred through generations for the power in its legs and the muscle bulging in the hump over its neck and the wide horns hooked over its forehead and, most of all, for the furious anger with which it will savage anyone who dares to challenge it? Especially this woman.

She is tiny. She might be as high as five foot five inches, but she has the build of a bird, slim and light-limbed, with long blonde hair and blue eyes which make her seem even more petite. More than that, she is an outsider. She was never born into the world of bulls: she grew up in a safe little house in a middle class part of Paris with a father who staged operas and a mother who was an actress, all hundreds of miles from the nearest bullring.

She had no thought of bulls until she was 14, when her family went for their summer holiday to the Camargue, the wild, marshy region at the mouth of the Rhone. As tourists do, they went to see a bullfight and the young girl was captivated by it. She decided there and then to become a bullfighter.

Back in Paris, she read all she could find on her new obsession and she discovered that there had never been a female matador, killing bulls on foot, since this required too much brute strength. But there had once been a woman named Conchita Cintron who killed bulls from horseback, an equally dangerous but more skillful and graceful method.

Four years later, she left school, returned to the Camargue, climbed on a horse for the first time in her life and learned to ride. For the next two years, she studied and practiced her new skill in France and in Spain until, in 1986, she killed her first bull at a small fete in France.

Now, four years later and aged 24, she has killed scores of bulls and built a reputation as a showman and a virtuoso to the point where she no longer needs her surname. In bullrings all over Spain and southern France, even in Frontigan, she is known simply by her first name, Marie-Sara, or else as the Queen of the Ring, La Reine de l’Arene.

Now, she prepares her three stallions for the fight ahead, gently cantering them in tight circles outside the arena. The noise of the fairground crashes in the background, competing now with the bullring’s own loud speakers screaming out the sound of Spanish trumpets playing extracts from Carmen and then, strangely, a brassy version of Roll Out The Barrel.

At one end of the ring, the two men with whom she shares the bill tonight are also preparing. One is a pretty-faced Portuguese with a dancing white stallion. The other is a tall, thin Frenchman, dressed up like a meringue in creamy gold satin, an effect which is ruined by the cigarette bouncing on his lower lip. At the other end of the ring, in a dark, squat, red-brick shed are the bulls who will die tonight.

Now, the loud speakers are quiet. The Frontignan band strikes up a wobbling fanfare. The pretty Portuguese canters into the ring with a grand, flourishing bow. The crowd applauds. He smiles his handsome smile and waves like Royalty, not noticing that the wooden door on the red-brick shed has been slid back, not seeing the bundle of black-skinned muscle which is now roaring towards him across the ring, tilting its horns towards the white stallion’s flanks.

At the last moment, the Portuguese sees the bull and darts to one side. The bull careers past him and into the wooden fence at the side of the ring with such force that its front legs shoot over the top. A second later, the bull is loose on the wrong side of the fence, sending the people of Frontignan running until the ‘peons’ – assistants with brightly-coloured capes – drive it back into the ring. The Portuguese never regains his composure. He does his job and leaves to weak applause.

Now, it is the French meringue’s turn. He fares even worse. His bull will not charge him as it is supposed to. Then suddenly it goes for him with such ferocity that all he can do is to flee, galloping the length of the ring at full tilt and finally crashing into the barrier, leaving his horse in a humiliating heap with its forelegs over the wooden barrier and its hind legs still inside the ring while the peons come to the rescue again. The crowd jeers, and the meringue – now white in the face – hurries through his work to escape the ring.

Finally, Marie-Sara’s moment has arrived. She says she is frightened – but not of the bull. “It’s stage-fright. I get it every time. The more I do it, the worse it gets, because I have more and more responsibility.”

So she works hard to do well. Every morning, she rides at least four of the stallions she keeps at her ranch near Nimes in southern France – round and round in the indoor school, schooling their every move, asserting her will over theirs. In particular, she has to assert her will over their fear of the bull.

To do this, she uses a strange contraption, an old wheelbarrow disguised as a bull complete with wooden horns on the front and a padded box on the top into which she can drive her ‘rejon’, a brightly-coloured three-foot staff with a short blade at the end of it.

Her stable lad, Michel, charges at her with this contraption while she teaches the horse to swerve and turn around it, driving him closer and closer, turning him later and tighter, never allowing him to touch it.

If she has no fear of the bull herself, it is because she has trained herself just like her horses. “You must have the right mental attitude and you must understand the bull. Then there is no need to feel fear. You must know how to dominate the bull.”

The day before she went to Frontignan, she sat at home watching a video of other bullfighters, the most famous and highly-paid men in her business. The video captured each one of them as he made some tiny misjudgement and was punished by the bull’s horns, tossed like a rag doll, torn open – this one in the leg, another in the throat, another in the abdomen.

She knew each scene by heart. “Watch this one. He gets it in the leg. The blood comes out so fast. Watch now. There, do you see the blood? There it is again. It’s horrible. And now see this one. There the bull has caught him and he’s down. Now, see, he gets him again. That’s it. He’s dead. The horn is in his heart. He’s dead.”

She is not frightened. “It has never happened to me,” she said and leaned forward to touch wood. Now as she rides an iron grey stallion into the ring at Frontignan, it is her husband, Simon, himself a former matador, who confesses: “I hate this. I feel very, very frightened for her. When it is over, I love it. But now, I feel very frightened.”

The wooden door slides back. The bull is in the ring. Marie-Sara waits quietly. The bull is running from side to side, snorting, looking for someone to fight. The peons flash their capes at him to confuse him, but Marie-Sara gestures them away, draws a rejon from the side of the ring, squeezes the grey stallion forward and shouts the length of the ring. “Ho!”.

The bull hears her. “Ho!” again. She wants him to charge her. She is cantering towards him, provoking him. Now, he lurches forward, throwing all his weight into his shoulders, hurling himself across the sawdust. With her left hand on the reins, Marie-Sara races on towards him, and then suddenly swerves, drawing the bull behind her in a tight circle, pacing the horse so that his flanks are just beyond the reach of the bull’s horns and then in a flash whipping her right arm down to drive the stubby blade of the rejon into the bull’s neck.

This is only the beginning. Twice more, Marie-Sara taunts the bull and buries a rejon in his neck. Then three times, she takes the longer ‘banderille’ blade and does the same. After each, she races to the side of the ring and throws her head back in triumph, smiling and waving for the crowd. After the weakness of the two men, they love her confidence. “Ole, Maria,” they shout.

In her confidence, she now goes beyond the call of duty, taking three extra rejons, much shorter than the ones she has already used and, therefore, more dangerous to dig into the bull’s bleeding neck. The crowd claps rhythmically and the band plays as Marie-Sara strikes three more times, like a snake, with her whole body moving in one arc of muscle.

The bull’s end is near. But tonight, the killing is not being done in the ring. Instead, seven young men – known as ‘fortados’ – climb in to the ring to subdue the wounded animal. The first of them, a chubby, short chap with a ruddy face, stands in front of the bull, wiggling his hips and shouting. When the bull charges, he is supposed to launch himself onto its head and cling on to its neck with his belly on the bull’s forehead and his backside in the air, so that the bull will drop its head and allow the other fortados to jump on, too, and subdue it. But it all goes wrong.

The chubby chap jumps on the head of the charging bull, loses his grip and is tossed into the air. The bull turns and swipes a second fortado to the ground, shoves him with his horns and starts trampling on him. The peons have to rush into the ring and draw the bull away to give the fortados a second chance. This time, the chubby chap does his job properly, the bull is subdued and chased from the ring to be slaughtered in private.

The work done, Marie-Sara takes her bow in triumph. On foot, she walks round the ring, grinning hugely against a tidal wave of applause, winking at familiar faces. The chubby fortado joins her, bloodied and with his trousers split open from groin to knee. He stops her to kiss her on the cheek. The President of the Frontignan arena takes to the microphone and announces that she has done so well that they have to decided to award her a special present – the ears of the bull she has fought. More wild applause. More kisses from the fortado. The Queen has conquered.

Next week, she will fight again. “I want to go on for as long as I can. I don’t want to be seen as a woman who fights bulls. I don’t want to be some sort of comic character – ‘Oh, look! It’s a woman fighting a bull’. I want to be seen as a bullfighter, but I know I always I have to be especially good or I will be marginalised as a woman.”

Despite the continuing debate about the cruelty of bullfighting, its popularity is booming in France largely because one of the TV channels has started broadcasting fights every Monday night. Whatever others may think, for Marie-Sara, cruelty has never been an issue.

“Killing a bull in the ring is abstract. It’s not a shock. The first time I did it, it was not some incredible thing. It’s not hard morally at all. It is part of a spectacle. If there was no bullfighting, these bulls would not even exist. They are bred for it.

“And don’t think they are nice, gentle little creatures. They are wild animals. They kill each other. It doesn’t mean I hate them. I respect them. When a man is attacked, he defends himself. But when a brave bull is attacked, he attacks back. The bull is so sure of himself, he believes he is stronger, and he fears nothing. He is like a hero. Even when he is wounded and bleeding, he attacks. He is incredible.

“A bull is virile, very virile. He is a symbol of male strength. And the bullfighter, even though he is a man, has always had a femininity about him. A bullfighter dominates with subtlety and grace. As a woman, that is how I fight.”