Philippe Sarde's edgy score and Tavernier's fluid camera infuse this period piece with plenty of urgency. Tavernier also reminds us that few conflicts are more vicious than religious wars, a message that resonates as loudly today as it did in the 1500s.
The Princess of Montpensier is based on a short story by Madame de La Fayette, a 17th century writer who’s credited with having penned the first historical novel, The Princess of Cleves. Tavernier preserves La Fayette’s fascination with courtly intrigue, and also gives us a vivid feel for life in war-torn France during the 1500s.
If the public life of France is torn apart by war, the private lives of the movie’s characters seems equally tumultuous. A series of clashing passions revolve around Marie (Melanie Thierry), a young woman who’s forced into marriage by a father who’s more interested in cementing a land deal than in ensuring his daughter’s happiness.
The dashing Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) – Marie’s original beau -- continues his pursuit, even after Marie has been married off to Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Later, Marie turns the head of yet another man, the dashing Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz).
As the story unfolds, Marie’s husband becomes increasingly jealous – and with good cause.
The movie’s most interesting male character arrives in the person of Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a warrior who decides to withdraw from battle after he kills a pregnant woman. Comte de Chabannes, who taught the Prince de Montpensier the arts of war, becomes Marie’s tutor, instructing her in everything from the reading to herbal cures. He, too, falls under Marie’s spell.
Each of the men desires Marie for different reasons: the prince because she’s his wife; de Guise because he can’t have her; Duc d’ Anjou because he’s vain; and Comte de Cabannes because Marie revives his sense of youth and innocence. The Comte’s love probably is the purest and least self-serving.
All of this might have been more effective had Thierry been able to endow the princess with a little more mystery. The buxom, blonde Thierry plays a young woman who has yet to learn to conceal her intentions, assuming she even knows them. I suppose that's the way she is, but it makes the story less interesting than it should be.
I’m a great admirer of Tavernier’s work – from A Sunday in the Country to Captain Conan with a stopover at ‘Round Midnight. Some of Tavernier’s recent films (In the Electric Mist and Holy Lola) have not received wide exposure in the U.S., but he remains one of the world’s important filmmakers. A director who refuses to be imprisoned by genre, Tavernier seems to break new personal ground in nearly every movie.
Princess of Montpensier allows Tavernier to pit large-scale historical events against a personal story of less-than-epic proportions, and Tavernier’s deep love of cinema is palpable in nearly every frame, as is his commitment to authenticity.
So even if a Tavernier movie is a little less than hoped for (as is the case here), it's still worth watching a master at work.