The Princess of Montpensier (Director: Bertrand Tavernier): Tavernier was a press agent for the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, and has been making films of his own for more than 40 years. He’s made films in both French and in English, narrative films and documentaries that have been equally lauded. It’s clear that he’s an accomplished filmmaker with an admirable range. Which is all prelude as to why I found The Princess of Montpensier somewhat of a disappointment.
It’s 1567, and the young and gorgeous Marie (Mélanie Thierry) is in love with the roguish Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), even though she’s been promised to his younger brother Mayenne. Things become complicated when her father is persuaded by the Duc de Montpensier to marry his daughter to the Duke’s son instead. The prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) seems a decent enough young man, but he’s uneasy because he is vaguely aware of the chemistry between Marie and Henri, who is also his cousin. But the marriage will create a stronger relationship between the families, and the beautiful Marie is a desirable catch besides. When the prince is called away to fight yet another uprising by the Protestant Huguenots, he leaves Marie in the care of his mentor, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a former warrior who grew sick of the endless battles and deserted. As he teaches the finer points of astronomy, Latin and writing to Marie, he too falls in love with her.
Meanwhile, the prince and his cousin Henri meet on the battlefield, both fighting on the side of the King. Henri distinguishes himself as a brave soldier and is quick to remind the prince that he has stolen his true love. Over time, the prince’s jealousy grows to consume him, and his wife, though obedient, never warms to him with any real affection. Things are further muddled when the King’s younger brother, the Duc d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) decides that he wants Marie, too, even if just for the thrill of the conquest.
Despite the prince’s increasing jealousy, Marie risks everything to be with Henri again, and ignoring his own feelings, Chabannes helps to bring them together. But even as Marie’s love remains pure and constant, things around her are changing all the time, and it’s apparent early on that true love will not triumph in the end.
A few scenes brought home how determined the lives of women (and to a lesser extent, men) were in those days, even (perhaps especially) among the noble classes. The wedding night scene was particularly repugnant. While Marie is bathed by her servants, naked, her father walks in to observe, and during the couple’s clumsy lovemaking, the two fathers are playing chess just a few feet away, awaiting the breaking of Marie’s hymen. When evidence is presented to the Duc de Montpensier, it’s as if he’s sniffing the cork of a bottle of wine that’s just been opened at his table.
Despite Marie’s early attempts to resist her marriage, and her later attempts to stay true to her heart, she remains more a sketch than a fully developed character, and that’s why all the fighting over her seems more about what she represents (beauty, innocence, conquest, influence) than about who she really is as a person. At one point, her husband tells her, “I don’t know who you are” and just for a minute we sense the characters’ powerlessness in the face of much larger forces conspiring to keep things that way.
Tavernier has made a technically proficient and attractive film out of a very old and simple story. I caught myself numerous times thinking that Shakespeare could have written this plot. But Shakespeare would have provided his characters with much more interesting things to say. I found the script just adequate and was never really captivated by the plight of the characters. The Princess of Montepensier never quite distinguishes itself from so many other respectable costume dramas, and I caught myself thinking that the filmmaking felt “old-fashioned” and not in a good way. The film hints at larger themes that might have been interesting to pursue further: the institution of marriage as a force of social cohesion vs. the individualism of pursuing one’s passion, just to name the most obvious one. Surely in its 150 minute running time, Tavernier could have devoted some time to exploring that rather than capturing yet another swordfight.