CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - Sixteenth-century France is a lousy time and place to fall in love in veteran director Bertrand Tavernier’s robust new film “The Princess of Montpensier.” If the interminable wars of religions don’t grind you down, then marriages of convenience and palace intrigue can snuff out the strongest of passion’s flames.
With this film, Tavernier pokes a real hole in costumed romance. Everything feels all too real here. There is little room for grand gestures or noble sentiments. Combat is nasty and obscene. A wife cheating on her husband is sordid. And when a man truly loves and respects a young woman, that love is not returned.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — “The Princess of Montpensier” is one of the finest costume dramas in a long while. The film should do well with adult audiences in Europe following its November release in France. Its story may be a little too buried in ancient history for North American audiences, but Tavernier does have a solid following there.
In adapting Madame de la Fayette’s 17th century novel, Tavernier and fellow writers Jean Cosmos and Francois-Olivier Rousseau may have intended something more traditional. You sense they are invested in their heroine’s foolish love for a dashing though unspeakably ambitious ruffian just as they admire her very modern desire to read and write and control her own destiny.
Yet they refuse to deny that foolishness. Nor are they above showing the deranged passions in many of the movie’s male characters, stirred, quite unconsciously, by their heroine. It’s a most convincing mess of emotions.
Young Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), heiress to great lands and fortune, loves Henri (Gaspard Ulliel), the Duc de Guise, a hothead in a family of Catholic hotheads that would rule the kingdom if they could. But her father marries her off to the Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), whom she meets after the decision is already made.
Their wedding night makes one of the great anti-romantic scenes in movie history: With fathers playing chess in the next room and lady attendants perched near the bed to bring the bloody sheet to the men, the couple’s consummation is seen for what is it — a business transaction.
The next morning, her husband rides off to war and “glory,” leaving her in the hands of a tutor, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), the Protestant deserter he protects.
Chabannes is the next man to fall madly for the princess, to be followed, as time passes, by the heir to the throne, the Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz); her own husband; and when he drifts back into her life, Henri all over again.
Amid all the bloodshed, as a kingdom tears itself apart over religious affiliation and, of course, power — which is always the real culprit — the movie chooses to focus on the jealousies and easily outraged honor of these influential men. No doubt this is an historical distortion, but it does humanize names from history books, restoring them to flesh-and-blood creatures who, no doubt, nurtured petty grievances even as they butchered innocents.
Amid a cast of mostly young actors, the male protagonist is actually the veteran Wilson, whose Chabannes swallows his pride and love for the princess to counsel her on how to negotiate her place at court amid so many illicit suitors. Wilson wears the mantle of sagacity well. He uses face and body to depict a man weary onto death of bloodshed and intrigue, a man wanting to retire from public life into a dreamy world where passion and emotion can fuel art and poetry.
Thierry is a lovely and talented actress but never quite suggests the sexual charisma that causes so many men to fall for her. She is better at playing the 16th century feminist, questioning all male authority and determined to follow her heart over her mind.
The film re-imagines French historical figures in new ways. Personnz is allowed to bring much more wisdom and grace to Anjou than is usually the case. Ulliel’s Guise is less a black villain than a man truly in love with the princess but much more in love with power and wealth.
Leprince-Ringuet is quite good as the man who tragically falls in love with his own wife. He, in fact, is the only one whose pain is palpable, so he comes off a much more wronged character than the princess.
The production is superb. Bruno de Keyzer’s cinematography takes in battle scenes and bedroom intimacies with equal aplomb as designer Guy-Claude Francois recreates a rustic castle far from the wars as well as a dark and dreary Louvre where chicanery lurks in every nook, cranny and passage way.
Caroline de Vivaise designs costumes you can almost feel next to your body, while Philippe Sarde’s score suggests the music of that time period while still being completely modern thanks to his arrangements.