The Princess of Montpensier

The Princess of Montpensier
The Princess of Montpensier opens on June 3, 2011 for a the­at­rical run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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.

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