Review: The Princess of Montpensier
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Ever the turbulent onscreen duo, the oft-senseless beasts of love and war walk hand in blistered hand in “The Princess of Montpensier,” a French-language epic that keenly aligns the deceptive ideas and impulses that lead to bloody battles, and those that trigger skirmishes of the heart. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and inspired by Madame de La Fayette's 1662 short story, the 140-minute saga is in many ways the antithesis of your typical costume drama, poo-pooing the three-tissue arcs and showboating extravagance that usually come standard, and instead plumbing the nitty-gritty of what these fiery people of the past truly felt and did. Set against the grisly Catholic-Huguenot wars in 16th century France, the story whirls around the widely-coveted Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry), a nervy and naïve young aristocrat who furiously rejects, then dutifully accepts, her arranged marriage to the Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) in a manner that suggests all sorts of untapped inner strength. She's really in love with Henri (Gaspard Ulliel), the dashing Duke de Guise and brother of the man to whom she was formerly betrothed. It seems everyone wants to control the moves Marie makes, and the more she rebels, the more her world unties like a poorly laced corset.
It's startling how fully Tavernier commits to rustic realism, an approach that proves wonderfully distinguishing. Nothing of ornamental flourish is gushed over, and characters and conflicts aren't glamorized as if the dirty real world gave them a pass. The costumes are lavish, but not wardrobe-department fresh. Settings are living spaces, not objects to ogle. The wedding night of Marie and the Prince is an extraordinary sequence, wherein Marie's business-minded father earnestly hosts the groom's family, mentally checking off the items of a very un-Hollywood agenda. He speaks in proud, fascinating detail about the medieval meal he's serving (a bit that throws us because it has no apparent plot purpose), and plays chess with the groom's father outside his daughter's bed chambers while, inside, a team of spectators stands watch as the marriage is consummated. There's a similar sense of unpolished voyeurism when events shift to the battlefield, where cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer seems to hauntingly linger on the anguish of fallen soldiers, rendering them as more than just the usual nameless, perished pawns. Each scenario is charged with the notion of actual life unfolding, each character endowed with feelings that run deep.
Thus, a movie with very little sex (of which, I'll admit, it could use a thrust or two more) boasts a fervent passion that's rather unrelenting. Marie, a very well-drawn and very well-played young woman of equal flaw and virtue, is a busty ball of excitement and apprehension, her breasts dying to escape her bodice as she rolls with the punches of a life in which she has little say. She finds some personal emancipation with the help of the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a peace-favoring deserter, scholar and friend of the Prince who schools Marie in her husband's military absence, helping her in her eager mission to remedy her ignorance. They talk of politics, of astronomy, of how faith makes one certain of realities that can't be seen, a passage that allows Tavernier to vocalize his thesis (“Sounds a lot like love,” Marie observes). The Count turns out to be another man infatuated with Marie, but rather than muddying an already complicated network of desire (Duke d'Anjou, the King's brother, wants in Marie's knickers, too), the movie makes him an if-I-can't-have-her-I'll-help-her confidant, whose actions eventually mirror those of Shakespeare's priest in “Romeo & Juliet.” But this is not your archetypal love story, nor is it even one that follows the untidy convention of ending things in tragedy.
Marie grows increasingly defiant as matters progress, becoming less fearful of chasing her instincts and disobeying the Prince, whose jealousy rages along with his rivalry with the intentionally imposing, flirtatious Henri (at one point tensions erupt into a terrific impromptu swordfight). Tavernier and his two co-screenwriters, Jean Cosmos and François-Olivier Rousseau, take care to make the desperate, lovelorn Prince into someone substantially sympathetic (if a bit pathetic), drawing loyalties away from the pleasure-powered Princess. Though initially presented as a pseudo-Austen woman who may deserve cheers through her personal journey, Marie is not left standing as a heroine to celebrate. She surely walks away a different girl, scarred by lessons that are bound to be indelible, but she is not rewarded for her “follies of passion,” as she calls them. Completing the film's thematic circle, her love battles wind up as fruitless as the wars that wage around her.