The Princess of Montpensier

by James McNally on May 25, 2011

in Theatrical Release

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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