Film Reviews

THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER

By • Oct 20th, 2011 •

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The intricately plotted, bittersweet THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER is more memorable than its hard-to-recall title. It is drawn from a classic 17th Century novella (1662) by the elegant wit, Madame de Lafayette, the author of the better known, equally mordant, “The Princess of Cleves” (which is still available in Penguin paperback).

Bertrand Tavernier, the film’s director/co-author (with two others) has previously made fine historical films, such as the splendid LET JOY REIGN SUPREME (1975), but he is in his historical element with the 16th Century, courtly PRINCESS.

It is always a mystery as to how a director can achieve a sense of period authenticity – whether it’s the brutal fighting between the royalist Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots (there are lots of horrific mutilations, including the deadly stabbing of a pregnant woman) or the Montpensier household’s intrusive levee: poised, just outside the bridal bedroom, awaiting evidence of the bride’s bloody sheet as proof of her deflowering. (The virgin Prince has a first- timer’s awkward difficulty in penetrating his wife.)

Tavernier and his swordplay choreographer convey a sense of unusually dangerous risk by the erratic swordsmanship of the rivals for the beautiful Marie – the Prince Philippe and the scar-faced Henri de Guise. In the old costume flicks, we always knew that Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power was going to prevail against the villain; but there is neither a hero nor a villain in this film, merely rival courtiers in love with the same beauty. The realism of the fighting has everything to do with the youths’ awkward misses on their thrusts. The sound of blade against blade is also amplified to a dangerous-sounding level.

THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER is a romance with four besotted suitors seeking the hand (or the nether parts) of the rich, young, uneducated, provincial beauty, Marie, played by Melanie Thierry. Ms. Thierry is obviously older than 16, which the script requires, but she has the current French Cinema’s most perfect “pair” (displayed at length, in two scenes, under golden lighting), since Bardot displayed her belle poitrine in AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1987).

The suitors include the sensual scarface, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), Marie’s childhood sweetheart, versus Philippe, the sweet, introverted Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), who is forced into marriage with the unwilling Marie by his ogre father (the scene-stealing Michel Vuillermoz).

A third claimant is the outcast scholar-warrior Compte de Chabannes, (the handsome French star, Lambert Wilson, now silver-haired), who has mentored Philippe, who, in turn, engages him to tutor his clueless bride in a castle, remote from the raging Religious Wars, in which the Prince is obliged to fight.

The fourth would-be partner is the darkly handsome Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), the future king, Henri III, who professes interest in Marie, but whose kohl-rimmed eyes suggest he may prefer the more available male courtiers wearing revealing tights.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is that we remain in the dark as to who will wind up with the beauty. It’s truly a surprise ending, but it’s most likely faithful to the Lafayette short story.

Tavernier sets the stage with a sweeping, widescreen vista of the battlefield, in which scavengers make off with valuables from the bodies of fallen warriors, only to be felled, in turn, by royals on horseback who sword-swipe them.

In retrospect, I realize that nearly every scene in the film is a favorite of mine.

There is a moonlit interlude between the tutor Chabannes and his adoring pupil, Marie, in which he teaches her a mixture of astronomy/astrology, which he says will prove useful to her when she reaches the Paris Court. You can sense that the tutor has fallen for his pupil, the wife of his royal protector, the Prince of Montpensier, who has saved him from ostracism as an outcast from both warring factions. Chabannes’ gratitude to his royal protector keeps him from speaking out.

In turn, Marie doesn’t recognize her introverted husband’s deep-seated feelings for her, any more than she glimpses Leprince-Ringuet’s adorable tush, which we glimpse from the open back of his nightshirt, when he leaves their bed to study documents in the outdoor, terrace light. Oddly, their somewhat recessive screen personalities make them a perfect match. And though the Prince is madly in love with his Princess, he cannot forgive her for an illicit night with his rival, the sleazy climber, de Guise, who has a rich and titled wife in mind, other than the married Marie.

Perhaps the most amazing scene shows the corpulent, bushy-browed Medici Queen at the Paris Court with a swarm of children and grandchildren perched on the tiers of her throne, speaking French with a heavy Italian accent. This startling image stays in one’s mind.

Tavernier is so scrupulous about period authenticity that he has even invented fuzzy background shots of children at their games, playing with some period, 16th Century balls and hoops.

To my mind Bertrand Tavernier is the most eclectic and interesting French director at work today, including Resnais and Techine. He is surely worthy of a complete, New York retrospective.

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