The Princess of Montpensier
Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier
Written by: Bertrand Tavernier, Jean Cosmos & Francois-Olivier Rousseau (screenplay), Madame de La Fayette (short story)
Starring: Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Gaspard Ulliel
In America, it’s hard to write a review of a good foreign movie without feeling obligated to include an excuse for someone to watch it. Many of the different styles in pacing and filming, in addition to the inclination toward moral ambiguity turn off audiences who favor the opposite. The Princess of Montpensier is a lavishly filmed French spectacle chock-full of sex and gruesome violence, but injected with those aforementioned “handicaps.”
Directed and co-written with exceptional talent by Bertrand Tavernier, Princess is a period love triangle set amid the turbulent violence of the Catholic/Protestant wars of the 16th century. It opens with an epic sequence of men on horseback slaughtering men on the ground. This image is indicative of the unfair advantages that infect much of the rest of the story, which finds young Marie (Mélanie Thierry) married off to the wealthy prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) who is given favor over the man Marie truly loves, her cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel).
On their wedding night, a group of women surround their marital bed awaiting Marie’s bloody virginal sheet. Once they’ve obtained it, they present it to the couple’s two fathers, who arranged this marriage as a lucrative business deal. The two men hug as if to finalize the transaction.
Details like that aid Princess of Montpensier greatly, as does the screenplay’s avoidance of both period and plot cliches. Marie is a woman stuck in the middle of feuding forces that view her mostly as an object, but by no means does she remain that way to the viewer. She is the most vividly drawn character outside of her guardian and mentor Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a war deserter who takes refuge with the prince after the movie’s brutal opening.
Chabannes and Marie have the movie’s most interesting character arcs largely because they are so similar by the end. Forced to choose between two evils, in the end they choose to remain outside of the grueling conceits of love and war. Marie’s two suitors feud in secret even though they do battle on the same side of the larger religious conflict.
In a key scene before the war, each of them meets with their father to learn of Marie’s fate. Tavernier stages her in the middle with a close-up, looking between the two parties as the camera shifts with her gaze. For the most part this is how the movie goes, rotating between an intimate portrait of a woman struggling with her desires and the men in the distance who control her fate.
As a period piece, Princess of Montpensier maintains authenticity without sacrificing interest. There are times when the endless internal bickering among the aristocracy is tedious, but Tavernier smooths over the narrative rough patches with his exquisitely active camera. He never lets the costumes speak for themselves (a cardinal sin of period dramas), instead frantically and efficiently surveying each key character’s reaction to the respective scenarios.
A dinner scene when Marie and the Prince are joined by a group of aristocrats (de Guise among them) is a good example of this. Tavernier begins by surveying the lavish dinner table and lets the conversation commence. He then switches between Marie and de Guise’s suggestive glances, and the Prince’s jealous realization. Emotional outbursts abound after this dinner, mostly from prince, but they never bog down the story. Restrained performances from all the actors also help keep the movie focused more on the story, which at just under 2 hours and 20 minutes has plenty on its mind.
If nothing else, The Princess of Montpensier establishes the period melodrama as alive and well in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. Tavernier’s decidedly modern approach to filmmaking and the script’s ambiguous morality and epic battle sequences keep the movie intimate in the context of a larger struggle. In other words, it’s a Hollywood spectacle on the outside, but French to the core.