The Princess of Montpensier

November 12, 2011

Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier is as impressive for the things it doesn’t do as it is for things it does.  A high medieval romance set against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion, the desire to heighten the drama with bodice-ripping passion or play up the epic scope with huge battles is wisely suppressed for something more intimate in scope.  On the other hand, the painterly, unsentimental distance of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the sparse, directorial opinions of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac are also missing – though the latter feels evoked from time to time in its matter-of-fact approach.

The story and themes are familiar enough.  An older soldier and scholar, the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), tires of the brutality of the war between the Catholics and the Huguenots and deserts the war.  Having fallen out of favour with both sides, he is taken in by his former pupil Philippe, the young Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).  Marie de Mezieres has been promised to a member of the power Guise family, though she is in love with the older brother, Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) of her betrothed.  The Duke of Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) convinces her father to break the engagement and have her marry Philippe.  The arrangement is carried out and, when Philippe is called back to war for the Duke of Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), Chabannes is charged with tutoring Marie, now the titular Princess.  Over time, he falls in love with Marie, and though it is never acted upon, it causes him to become more involved with her precarious position than he should.  She’s still in love with the passionate and exciting Henri, whose daring, thoughtless courage has earned him much praise in battle.  Philippe is aware of the tension and he lets his jealousy be known.  Things become more complicated when everyone arrives at the Queen’s court in Paris, where the drama plays out amongst masked balls and secret trysts.

The substance of the material is the stuff of a boisterous period melodrama, and it’s to Tavernier’s credit that he never really gets swept away by it.  The costumes and settings are beautiful but never overwhelming, lending the film a feel of practical reality.  The brief scenes of battle are muddy but never showy, eliding the quick-cutting depictions of brutality and intensity for long shots of horses galloping through a muddy hillside of corpses and stragglers.  It’s very functional storytelling, evoking a reality without insisting upon it.  The castles are large but the rooms are small and close together.  There is little about the entire production that seems to comment upon the period or the story.  In other words, Tavernier is not interested in emphasizing and making judgments on the larger context.  Instead he favours the characters.

The early scenes are dotted with characterizations in broad strokes, as perhaps they must given the necessity of setting the story and putting the characters in play.  If there’s a major issue with the film, it’s that there is a long stretch where we don’t really understand the appeal of Marie beyond her beauty.  Thierry struggles to convince us why she’s so desirable, but her character is attempting to figure herself out, and once she’s faced with the difficult decisions, her character becomes infinitely more interesting.  The themes of fate and duty versus choice and passion are well worn but given dramatic heft by her performance in the latter half of the film.  In fact, none of the major characters are two-dimensional in the way you might expect.  Henri is passionate and glamorous and, yes, a bit of an asshole, but you never believe him to be malicious or manipulative.  He’s sincere in emotional folly, and we can understand Marie’s attraction to him.  Philippe is not a cold, brutal man but a generally nice boy with a growing inferiority complex that is both understandable and detestable.  If Chabannes’ love for Marie seems a little out of character considering his world-weary wisdom at first, we grow to accept it and the decisions he takes because of it.  Perhaps most surprising of all is the relatively minor role of the Duke of Anjou, which might so easily been the conceited, spoiled rich kid with little regard for anyone but himself, but he understands the limits of his rather aggressive style, and he becomes the surprising voice of reason in several crucial moments.

When I say that Tavernier eschews the opulence such a melodrama might invite, I don’t mean to make it sound dull.  There are a number of thrilling little details that breathe life into the nooks and crannies of the film.  There are, for instance, two duels that contrast each other in meaning that are probably the best examples of swordfighting on film I’ve seen in many a year.  Beautifully choreographed but never showy, they are filmed at a distance that is more about observing than fast-cutting excitement.  Likewise, there is a minor running gag in the film about food, and the way in which everyone at dinners or balls discuss the quality of their meal, or boast proudly about the specific ways in which they fatten an eel.  There is a good sense of a living world surrounding the characters, and their lives consist of more than just extreme passions and honor-bound duties.

The drawback to this matter-of-fact approach with character-motivated action is that when the Huguenot uprising plays a major part in the plot of the film later on, it feels forced.  I have no problems with telling a story about the problems of the nobility if the peasantry is left to the background, but their intrusion feels more for convenience than a natural outgrowth of the world depicted.  It’s unfortunate that it becomes such a crucial point at such a late moment, but it doesn’t ruin the film, nor does it undercut the beautiful final scenes where Marie fully understands the similarities between herself and her kindred spirit.  The Princess of Montpensier doesn’t break any new ground, but it is refreshing enough to never feel old fashioned, and at 140 minutes it is never for a moment a dull watch.  Its scope is large but its feel is intimate, and Tavernier’s smart, unimposing directing and attention to characters makes it something of a minor gem.

-M

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