There are times when the lights are low and the bodices have been gently loosened that “The Princess of Montpensier,” a rousing amalgam of ambition, moods and genre conceits, looks like one of those old-fashioned diversions in which swords clang as bosoms heave with sweet passion. The pretty bosom of the title character played by Mélanie Thierry tends to swell rather gently, but it also rides so high in her dresses that it evokes the temptations displayed in the windows of Parisian patisseries. The French director Bertrand Tavernier deploys some smart ideas in this film, a period story about wars on the battlefield and those closer to home, but there’s something a bit goatish in his attention to some female charms.
The movie’s opening image — a traveling shot of dying and dead men scattered across a field — shows a darker, more somber side of Mr. Tavernier. It’s an eerily calm scene, at once ugly and visually striking, and almost too handsomely composed for the carnage. Immediately, however, Mr. Tavernier brings the horrors of war within ghastly close distance with a skirmish in a nearby barn that leaves a pregnant woman dead, a sword in her belly, and a soldier of God, Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, wonderful), renouncing the righteousness of a religious war. Dropping to his knees in wordless horror, he busily tries to clean a blade as bloodied as Macbeth’s.
Mr. Tavernier, whose earlier films include “Captain Conan” and “Safe Conduct,” wrote this one with François-Olivier Rousseau and Jean Cosmos, adapting it from the 1662 novel of the same title by Madame de Lafayette. Set against civil war — the Wars of Religion (1562-98) — the story turns on Marie of Mézières, an heiress who, while she loves the heroic Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), is married off by her father, the Marquis of Mézières (Philippe Magnan), to another, more politically expedient war hero, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). The prince’s scheming father, the Duke of Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz), clinches the deal with the marquis when he throws in a parcel of land.
Marie enters the story after her fate is sealed, a delay that reflects Mr. Tavernier’s oblique narrative approach and her true place — or rather her worth — in war-ravaged 1562 France. Like the country itself (“la France,” a feminine word), Marie de Mézières is contested territory in a conflict that as Roman Catholic fights Protestant on the battlefield, and cousin fights cousin in the bedroom, Mr. Tavernier brings to life with racing cameras, sweeping vistas, lofty words, bawdy deeds and some hard truths. When Marie learns of her father’s plans, she dares to defy him. “I’ve tamed worse than you,” he answers, slapping her hard. Her mother intercedes. “Control yourself, proud child,” she advises. “And submit.” And so Marie does.
“The Princess of Montpensier” is a story about submission: of man to God and king, and wife to husband and to other men of high rank. Yet while the larger backdrop is the religious war, the battle that consumes so much attention onscreen is that between wife and husband. Forced to yield to her father — and to the other men engaged in that transaction known as her marriage — Marie is handed from one player to the next in a struggle in which she is pawn and prize alike. Once married, the prince takes her to a family castle, one distant enough from the war to keep her safe but also secluded enough to keep her isolated. Almost shortly after, though, he departs again for the war, leaving his former tutor, Chabannes, to watch over her.
Like an action painter, Mr. Tavernier likes big, bold gestures, and he regularly fills the screen with slashes of exciting motion, the galloping horses streaking across the image with the camera in pursuit. But among the hard-ridden horses, the arriving and departing messengers, the smoke that wafts over the battlefields and the intrigues that race through the castles like a lethal virus, he makes room for Marie. A pouty, neo-Bardot beauty, Ms. Thierry is hypnotically transfixing, but she takes a while to warm to, partly because it’s some time before her character comes into focus. This isn’t her fault; as Jessica Rabbit would say, she’s been drawn that way: young, spoiled, only rudimentarily educated, Marie is a beautiful blur.
Eventually, a person emerges from the haze, but however agreeable, she never becomes the scintillating companion that so many men, Chabannes included, insist she is. It doesn’t help that Ms. Thierry is out-acted by the rest of the terrific cast, including by Raphaël Personnaz as the Duke of Anjou (and future king) and Judith Chemla as his mother, the queen, who with eyebrows as bushy as caterpillars, amusingly takes the story hostage briefly. This doesn’t diminish the film’s pleasures, yet it may explain why although it’s called “The Princess of Montpensier” Mr. Tavernier lavishes so much time on Chabannes, a dashing figure, a master of the sword and pen both, who can find medicinal herbs, read the stars and strum a lute. He’s strong enough for a man, but French enough for a woman.
Bertrand Tavernier’s 16th century costume drama is an entertaining and intelligent return to moviemaking of yore.
By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
April 15, 2011
Epic and intimate, historical and contemporary, moving and thought-provoking, the impressive “The Princess of Montpensier” has something for all and sundry but especially for those who like to believe that films can be as boldly intelligent as they are entertaining.
As directed and co-written by the veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier with an expert cast of familiar and unfamiliar faces, “Princess” is a costume production rich in all manner of classic dramatic elements. Say hello to selfish schemes, bitter rivalries and the complexities of power and dynastic relationships at a time when France was divided by a bloody religious war between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots
But past the politics, what holds us absolutely is this film’s unsentimental, far from conventional love story about that 16th century princess named Marie and the four very different men who became intoxicated — and not without reason — by this beautiful, intelligent and passionate woman.
This complicated tale holds us absolutely because, burdened with too much attractiveness and too little power, the princess of Montpensier (played with spirit and conviction by Melanie Thierry) is never in a position to enjoy her advantages.
As the intricate psychological interplay with these men ebbs and flows, the princess finds herself constricted by the emotional minefield of her precarious position. Not just because she’s a woman in a chauvinistic age but because she’s a person who values genuine feelings in a brutally cynical world.
As impressive as all this is (and credit goes to co-writer Jean Cosmos and the original 17th century novella by Madame de La Fayette), it’s matched by the vividness of the film’s bracing physical re-creation of France circa 1562.
Fluidly shot by Tavernier veteran Bruno de Keyzer, “Princess” is awash in strong and compelling wide-screen visuals, including chaotic battle scenes involving disturbing hand-to-hand combat and elegant swordplay. Both physically and psychologically (especially with its scenes of a wedding night as family spectacle), this film immerses us completely in that long-gone world.
“Princess” opens not with anything romantic but rather with a fierce sequence of combat in which the Comte de Chabannes, acting on battlefield reflex, destroys a family. The event so unnerves Chabannes, played with gravity and dignity by Lambert Wilson (the head monk in “Of Gods and Men”), that he quits the war right then and there. “No more barbarity for me,” he says, adding later, “How can people kill each other and worship the same god?”
Chabannes has spent much of his life, apparently, as a tutor to higher nobility, and he now finds himself once again serving a former pupil, the upright and decent Philippe, the prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).
As the men get reacquainted, Philippe’s father, the ruthless Duc de Montpensier (gifted Comedie-Francaise veteran Michel Vuillermoz), is involved in intense negotiations to marry his son to Marie, the kingdom’s richest heiress and someone Philippe has never so much as met.
Marie, meanwhile, is engaged in heavy flirtation with another nobleman, the hot-tempered, hot-looking Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), whose motto is “I do not reason, I feel.” She insists she will not marry Philippe, but then her father roars “this marriage suits me. You will agree or enter a convent.”
A woman out of time who is troubled by contemporary concerns, Marie finds she must adjust as best she can to an age when women were chattel and whose thoughts no one cares to examine, let alone pay attention to.
When Philippe goes back to the war, he leaves Marie in the care of his old mentor Chabannes, asking him to instruct her in arts and poetry. Marie’s gifts and her beauty inevitably attract this mature gentleman, as they do the visiting Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), a cold-blooded schemer who is also the brother of French King Charles IX. (Though this story is fiction, both d’Anjou and De Guise were real people.)
With all this going on, and more, we are fortunate to have a director of Tavernier’s experience and skills. After more than 20 features, including “‘Round Midnight” and “A Sunday in the Country” and nearly 40 years of work, his immaculate touch sees to it that the film’s strongly feminist themes, its vibrant historical re-creation and its involving, emotionally realistic story never get out of balance. This is not only about a time that is no more, it’s filmmaking the way it used to be.