by Richard von Busack
SWASHBUCKLING in widescreen, photographed as close to Technicolor as you can get today and with a percussive soundtrack by Philippe Sarde, Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier re-creates a visually grander era of moviemaking.
This is what one would expect from Tavernier, whose 1975 Que la fete commence is still one of the best films made about the 1700s. The director takes the theatricality out of a costume drama. Of course, there is a drawback: The subject matter is a nexus of confusing history, more mystifying than the Wars of the Roses.
Just as one doesn't have to know the pedigree of the House of York to enjoy Richard III, Tavernier's film isn't inexplicable without a history lesson. However, it's clearly made for a French audience—an audience that knows well where the various conspiracies are heading and is well aware of the bloody fates ahead.
The source is a tale by the 17th-century writer Madame de La Fayette (La Princesse de Cleves): it simmers with cultural ferment and incipient feminism. Engrossing as it is, The Princess of Montpensier isn't completely about the past—the viciousness of the French religious wars and the ethnic cleansing they pioneered are still relevant. The subject is as worthy now as when D.W. Griffith used some of this historical material in Intolerance. Still, The Princess of Montpensier is the opposite of The Conspirator, where the forced historical parallels desiccated the show.
Apart from the theme, the subject matter is the stuff of entertainment. In 1562, a gorgeous princess named Marie (Melanie Thierry) is desired by a quartet of men. First is her cold, correct husband, the prince, got in an arranged marriage. Second is her seemingly stoic tutor. Third is a dallying heir-apparent. Last is a sardonic, scar-faced duelist: the bloodthirsty Duc de Guise, the man Marie has always loved.
The tutor, the Comte de Chabannes (the gravely handsome Lambert Wilson), is caught between sides in the battles between the Catholics and the Protestants. He takes refuge with his former pupil, the earnest Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), who is just about to be married to the wealthy heiress Marie. Shortly after the marriage is consummated, the new husband is sent for to join the fighting.
For a time, Chabannes stays behind in a remote castle to educate the young bride. Unfortunately, the tutor falls chastely in love with his pupil. Chabannes, the prince and the princess meet again at the court in Paris. Their king is kept offscreen, though we hear him coughing—"Pleasure uncontrolled/ weakeneth his body," as Marlowe wrote of Charles IX.
At the Louvre, Marie not only runs into her lost love de Guise but also the conniving, superbly arrogant Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), next in line to the throne.
The good news and the bad: Tavernier is too historically aware for melodrama, as we can see in the life-size commonness of the slumping Queen Mother, played by an opera singer turned actress named Evelina Meghnagi. This same queen, popularly charged with conceiving the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre—was played by a poisonous Virna Lisi in Queen Margot (1994), a fondly remembered epic Tavernier sourced for his costumes.
The Princess of Montpensier is a visual treat, but it's a plausible, unoperatic epic. The film doesn't go grand; it's utterly logical. To counterbalance the nobility, Tavernier brings in peasant comic relief, showing a couple caught having a quickie in the kitchen and marveling at a boorish noble describing how he fattens lampreys for the table.
The definition of a successful historical film is one in which there are things one doesn't pick up on right away. We should be shocked, confused, discomfited: seeing the way the princess-to-be is stripped and displayed by her ladies-in-waiting, for example. Gloriously built, but not a commanding presence, Thierry doesn't try to break our hearts. Rather she impresses on us the intellectual sorrows of a young woman trapped. She embodies the sadness of an era when a well-born woman was the guardian of a husband's honor—without having any of her own.