Princess of Montpensier, The

April 2011
By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–The great risk of excavating the past in the movies is having the result ending up like a museum piece, fussy, precise and impressive but also dust bound and a little dead on the inside.

The superb French director Tavernier is blessed with an acute, probing intelligence and ability to vividly and sharply elucidate the past in images, emotion and feeling.In his dovetailing personas of critic, historian, documentarian and mad movie lover (rivaling perhaps only Martin Scorsese for his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history), Bertrand Tavernier is particularly well suited to the demands and difficulties of the large scaled though deeply personal brand of epic, classical moviemaking.The director’s new story of love, death and personal allegiance set against the religiously-inflected wars that crippled France during the 16th century, “The Princess of Montpensier” is distinguished by muscular and sensual set pieces, frighteningly realistic battle sequences and the pirouetting romantic coupling and uncoupling of the eponymous figure.

Tavernier has made some exacting and highly intelligent historical pieces, from the harsh and beautifully severe medieval drama “Beatrice” to World War I period dramas “Life and Nothing Else” and “Captain Conan.” Cinematically, this tumultuous social, political and religious historical period has been covered before, from D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” to Patrice Chereau’s “Queen Margot.” Tavernier is smart and judicious enough to give the material his own reading and perspective.Tavernier wrote the script with frequent collaborators Jean Cosmos and Francois-Olivier Rousseau, adapted from the short novel by Madame de La Fayette. The beautiful and much coveted Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), heiress to a great fortune, loves the skilled and virtuous warrior Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). In a political maneuver to fortify his own standing, her father rescinds the previous agreement of betrothal between the young cousins in favor of a more advantageous position with the prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).Headstrong and somewhat dismissive of the restrictive social customs Marie initially balks at the arrangement though eventually she concedes to her father’s demands.

The historical detail of the movie is often riveting, like the almost ritual viewing of the couple’s consummation, viewed by parties of both families that sanctifies the new arrangement. Marie’s own stance softens and she displays a much more obedient and obliging nature with the prince, notifying him she has vanquished any existing emotional attachment to her cousin. Her education remains a work in progress. After the prince is ordered to direct a campaign against forces loyal to the Huguenot (Protestant) cause, he dispatches his wife to the baronial estate and secluded castle of Champigny to gather the necessary education to enter court. Her tutor and overseer, Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), is the prince’s mentor who was banished by the king for renouncing war (and concerns he remains a Huguenot sympathizer).

A warrior and scholar, Chabannes finds himself also drawn to the piercing beauty and hungry, exacting intelligence of the young woman.Tavernier brilliantly intertwines the personal against the political. The movie opens with a frighteningly realistic skirmish involving Chabannes that punctuates the terrible human toil of the battle and the great injuries and casualties suffered by noncombatants, women and children. Tavernier eclipses the frightening, raw power of the opening with disarmingly intense, grubby and primal battle sequence.

Outlined against a charcoal gray sky, opposing armies drawn against each other, Tavernier stages the war as bloody, violent and all-encompassing. He allows no room for surrender or release. Known as Le balafre, or “Scarface,” because of the markings that slashed his face, Guise is ferocious soldier who is especially skilled at hand to hand combat. The prince is also a talented and dedicated swordsman who distinguishes himself with his valor and duty.

The war comes home with a vengeance and the shifting rules and nature of the battlefield now encroaches on the property where Marie is isolated. At the estate the dramatic triangle that opened the film involving Guise and the prince is now complicated by a rival and potentially duplicitous romantic party, Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), the future king.

The reappearance of Guise only aggravates Marie’s fragile and uncertain emotional condition. Tavernier superbly pirouettes between the warring parties, treating it as a kind of elaborate roundelay of backstage maneuvering and covert manipulation. Guise refuses to believe her claim of sudden indifference and intends to uncover the nature of her true feelings, as the prince also fights off his own linger suspicions about his wife’s fidelity and love.In order for the drama to work, Marie must hold the film’s center.

The ravishing Thierry is more than convincing. She possesses not only the physical requirements the role entails, but she conveys a considerable intelligence, guile and cunning that powerfully suggests she is a great deal more than just an object of desire. Chabannes is her mirror opposite, the brave and talented warrior and scholar who also is the first to object to the barbarity of the particular war and fight against the encroaching hysteria and mounting fear and dread. Wilson brings the necessary sorrow and grace to the part.If the movie ultimately lacks the sweep and great passion of Tavernier’s other historical projects, the material is probably the culprit. It does what all movies aspire toward, and lives and breathes in the imagination.