Director/Coscreenwriter: Bertrand Tavernier
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Princess of Montpensier was booed by some critics at its Cannes press screening, and it’s not hard to understand why. The lavish, period, literary adaptation they had just seen must have seemed like a return to the “bad old days” of the “quality films” the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were rebelling against. Indeed, in the United States, such films are often seen as Oscar bait—inert displays of wealth and old-fashioned values that have no relevance to modern life.
While it can’t be disputed that this film looks expensive, takes place in France’s far past (the 16th century), is based on a literary work from that period by Madame de Lafayette, and concentrates most of its 139 minutes on a sort of love story, there is nothing inert or irrelevant about it. The Princess of Montpensier may seem like just another costume ball concerned with a beautiful woman all want to possess. But that modern audiences accept as commonplace such a plot—a woman as a prize in a macho contest—is evidence that we haven’t progressed as far as we think. And the background of religious persecution and warfare also resonates in many parts of our world today.
The film opens on a battlefield. Survivors of a routed fighting force of French Protestants (Huguenots) attempt to hobble out of sight, but are cut down by a trio of soldiers on horseback who are fighting for the Catholic cause. As they ride off the battlefield, three Huguenots on horseback pursue them and confront them as they retreat into a farmhouse. “In the name of Christ,” yells the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) before they all fire pistols into the house and break in. Swords are crossed, and during the fray, Chabannes runs a pregnant woman trying to defend her dying child through with his sword. A close-up of her stricken face communicates the horror of the moment. After this terrifying fight, Chabannes deserts, disillusioned with the senseless slaughter in the name of a Christ both Protestants and Catholics worship. Banished by both the Catholic King Charles IX and his Protestant compatriots for deserting, Chabannes turns to his former pupil, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire LePrince-Ringuet), for sanctuary.
The prince and Chabannes have a surprise waiting for them when they return to the prince’s home. The Duke of Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) has persuaded the Marquis de Mézières (Phillippe Magnan) to end the betrothal of his daughter Marie (Mélanie Thierry) to Mayenne de Guise (Césare Domboy) and to give her to his son. This is a very serious breach of promise, one that Marie and Mayenne’s brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) take very badly—the two are in love and are tormented by the idea that they will be parted. Marie’s mother (Florence Thomassin) advises her to submit, telling her that she and Henri have been indiscreet and that being so close to Henri while married to Mayenne would bring ruin to her and her family. Reluctantly, Marie agrees and warns the headstrong Henri not to fight their fate.
Sadly, the prince and Marie are all but strangers, and he lacks the charm and confidence to woo her. While she dutifully mouths words of affection toward him, she cannot match them with her feelings. It is also Marie’s misfortune to be breathtakingly beautiful, causing the prince’s jealousy—particularly toward Henri—to bubble out of control, further alienating Marie. He is summoned to battle time and again, leaving her alone with only Chabannes, his trusted tutor and friend, as a companion, with instructions to educate her before she is presented at the court of Versailles. She is intelligent and eager to learn, easy around the older Chabannes, and therefore quite shocked when he tells her he, too, has fallen in love with her.
Her problems are compounded when the Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and Henri happen near the prince’s estate, encounter Marie, and she offers them the hospitality of her home. The duke covets her as well, quite openly, and poor Marie must contend with four men at the dinner table eyeing her like a prize goose. Things come to a head when Marie finally travels to Versailles and Henri tempts her to renew their love affair.
Bertrand Tavernier is a very versatile director who can make any subject he chooses to tackle come to life. You might catch yourself wanting to swat flies while watching the goings-on in the colonial backwater of his Coup de Torchon or rub your elbows in pain after a cop takes down a drug dealer in L.627. So, too, does The Princess of Montpensier put you into the times these characters lived through and make you identify with their struggles and restrictions. The warfare in this film is brutal and realistic; we watch a fighter on the ground stab a horse to death with a lance to unseat its rider and witness the lack of mercy shown to civilians, women, and children during battles and in the pogroms carried out in Protestant areas. The Duke of Anjou is shown studying Polish while encamped with his army, explaining to the prince and Chabannes that the Polish king is the weakest in Europe and his family thinks he should simply take the crown—he behaves similarly with Marie, yelling at Henri for wanting something that should rightfully have been his, and assuming his authority as heir to the throne will cause the prince to just step aside when the moment is right. This is the arrogance of hereditary rule that would see his kind lose their heads in France two centuries later.
One feels for the prince, hoping that his beautiful wife will love him, only to have her say she will if he “orders” her to, but his irrational explosions are horrible and his intentions to basically lock her away after he learns that Henri is back in the picture are barbarous. Marie, who has had little agency in the film, tells him she will ride back to their estate on horseback rather than be conveyed in a carriage to her confinement; when she arrives, she nearly falls off her horse in exhaustion, showing this act of free will to be merely masochistic. Marie’s life in this film is commodified at every step. Her wedding night, another excrutiatingly authentic scene, is a horror of having a crowd watch as her naked body is washed and perfumed—her father inspecting the proceedings as he would a horse being brushed down in his stable—and a group of family and servants waiting at the foot of her curtained bed for her cry of pain when her hymen is broken. The servants are sent immediately to the bedside to gather evidence that blood was shed, and the new fathers-in-law tip glasses at this sealing of the deal. Perhaps worst of all, the aggressive attentions this young, unsophisticated woman is subjected to by her admirers are covetous rather than sincere and are rather frightening to watch. Only Chabannes, because of his age and wisdom, remains chivalrous toward her, even sacrificing his place with the prince to save Henri. He will sacrifice more in defense of the innocent before the picture ends, acting as a moral compass in a rather immoral film.
I think it is to Tavernier’s credit that he continues to plumb the depths of French history and bring a less pretty sort of period drama to life. His message about the senselessness of religious warfare and the horror of “collateral damage” isn’t hinted at but plainly spoken and shown—a lack of subtlety that seems suitable, not something to criticize. His choice to tell a drawn-out love story has rankled many critics for its apparent puffery, but women at this time were little more than property, a specific situation that Western cultures have outdistanced but that still informs the inferior status women hold throughout the world. Finally, Tavernier has argued with French critics for ignoring the financial pressures of the European Union on the French film industry by denigrating the efforts of commercial filmmakers:
In a series of interviews and letters, Tavernier issued an impassioned attack on the state of film criticism in France. He accused critics, lost between the savage tastes of the public and their own self importance, of employing a cynical triple standard, giving a free pass to virtually all the Hollywood blockbusters, championing marginalised filmmakers from around the world, while ignoring or dismissing French commercial cinema. (Source: Carloss James Chamberlin, “Bertrand Tavernier,” Senses of Cinema)
The Princess of Montpensier, in the mold of the successful The Duchess, is a film that can compete in the world marketplace. Thierry is an appealing actress who holds the center of the film quite well. She is ably supported by the quartet of men who play her suitors. I especially liked LePrince-Ringuet, a handsome actor who manages to contain his charisma and appear a man more comfortable crossing swords in battle than exchanging words with his own wife. The film goes beyond its commercial appeal with its extraordinary attention to detail, as well as a dedicated and talented crew in front of and behind the camera.
The Princess of Montpensier screens Sunday, October 10, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 12, 8:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)