Medieval times, encumbered as they are with codes of religion, status, politics and behavior that seem very foreign to us today, have always been particularly difficult to make come fully alive onscreen, but Bertrand Tavernier does a better job at this than most in “The Princess of Montpensier.” An adaptation of a short tale by Madame de La Fayette, sometimes regarded as the first novelist, this is a charged story of sexual desire and heated rivalry played out as on a life-sized chess board that’s left quite bloody by the time all is settled. Spirited. robust and intelligent, this is a film that courses with life and its passions, not formality and protocol.
So many characters of initially hazy relations and loyalties are introduced in the first 20 minutes or so that one really could use a cheat-sheet. However, it seems as though nearly everyone who counts in the France of 1562 are cousins, and it’s clear that, among these nobles, the children are married off in ways that most suit the families’ political, social and economic designs.
The review continues after the jump.
Providing a backbone for the adaptation by Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rosseau and Tavernier is the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a pre-Enlightenment figure who, disgusted by the fighting in which he’s participated during the seemingly endless war between Catholics and Protestants, makes himself an official outsider by throwing down his sword and taking refuge as the personal tutor to one of the country’s wealthiest and most beautiful young women, Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry).
Though smitten with the arrogant warrior Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), Marie is forced to agree to an arranged marriage with the less self-confident Philippe de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), and Tavernier stages the particulars of their wedding night in a way that suggests that private life in castles was very much a public matter; even after the couple enters their bedchamber and the curtains are drawn, a large gathering of retainers, attendants and family remains within earshot until a “mousy squeak” is heard to come from the 16-year-old bride.
Without getting to know his wife at all, the prince sets out on a new military campaign, leaving Marie to be educated by the older but still handsome man cultivated in the arts and sciences. He seems capable in all things, but soon develops one handicap; he, too, comes under the spell of the radiant strawberry blonde. Wilson’s performance is like sheathed steel, formidable but held in check as befits the character’s mature, watchful nature, as well as by the constant restraint required of him while in Marie’s presence.
Yet another ardent admirer soon joins the club, the stylish and droll Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), brother to the king and a future king (Henry III) himself. A truce allows the principals to convene in Paris, where the duc must intervene in a duel between Henri and Philippe, Marie is presented at court and a lavish Moorish ball provides the setting for further intrigue.
Although the amount of time that passes from beginning to end is difficult to discern, the characters disperse once again, religious hostilities are renewed and Marie, Henri and Philippe eventually make absolute decisions that finally determines their compromised fates.
Tavernier keeps the pot simmering most of the way and finds a reasonable stylistic middle ground between period mores and a more modern style; the dialogue is more conversational than formal, the fighting methods lean toward the contemporary and Philippe Sarde’s vigorous score is orchestrated with deliberate anachronisms.
The performances that stand out are those of Wilson and young Personnaz, who makes the duc’s subtle witicisms and insinuating phrasings roll off the tongue as if to the manor born. Leprince-Ringuet credibly conveys the uncertainties of a physically inferior rival for Marie’s affections, but while Ulliel has the requisite swagger as Henri, he brings few further dimensions to the character.
Where the film falls short to a noticeable extent is with Thierry. Striking enough to be entirely credible as a Helen of Troy beauty who might inspire men to go into battle for her sake, the young actress nevertheless lacks the craft and emotional transparency to reveal what’s going on inside Marie. There are screen naturals who can expose the workings of their charcters’ hearts, mind and whims with seeming effortlessness, and such a performer would have helped raise “The Princess of Montpensier” from a fine film to something even better.