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Mélanie Thierry & Lambert Wilson in THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER (Photo: IFC Films)

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Produced by Eric Heumann
Written by Jean Cosmos & François Olivier-Rousseau & Tavernier, based on the novel by Madame de Lafayette
Released by Sundance Selects
French with English subtitles
France/Germany. 139 min. Not Rated
Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel & Raphaël Personnaz

Bertrand Tavernier’s superb historical drama is an artful, exuberantly visceral adaptation of a 17th century French novel by Madame de Lafayette, expertly and adroitly expanded by Tavernier, Jean Cosmos, and Francois Olivier-Rousseau into a tough-minded but ultimately heartbreaking love story.

A title card announces the year 1567, which thrusts us into the French religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots. The eponymous princess—beautiful, intelligent, and independent—is not merely decorative, like most women of this era. Betrothed to the Prince of Montpensier but in love with the Duke of Guise, she accepts her role as the prince’s wife while she tries to bury her simmering passion for the Duke. The naïve and jealous prince is close friends with the Count of Chabannes, his former mentor. We first see the count cutting a bloody path on and off the battlefield, the carnage of which makes him decide to lay down his arms and stop fighting. When the prince leaves for his frequent forays into battle alongside Guise and the Duke of Anjou (the future King Henry III), he entrusts the count to teach his wife the finer things, like Latin, poetry, proper court behavior, even stargazing. The tender, intimate scenes between the tutor and the princess underline his love for her, of which she is blissfully ignorant, at first.

It’s no spoiler to say that, eventually, all four men—Montpensier, Guise, Anjou, and Chabannes—butt heads attempting to win over the princess, but Tavernier is less interested in a straightforward soap opera than in showing how romantic passion destroys those consumed by it. It’s no coincidence that the story takes place in a brutal period of French history. The era’s most infamous event, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre—in which Catholics butchered thousands of Huguenots, first in Paris, then throughout the country—is persuasively reenacted, its savagery recorded offhandedly as it takes the life of one of the film’s protagonists, making the rampage even more unsettlingly and effective.

Typically for Tavernier, The Princess of Montpensier dovetails the personal and the epic as important historical events inform the romantic pentangle. Physical violence takes the form of both battlefield bloodshed and, in two very different sequences, swordplay between Montpensier and Guise: first, in a friendly competition, the second time, in deadly earnest. There’s also much emotional cruelty depicted in the unspoken feelings and often selfish behavior of characters treading a battlefield as intensely real and bloody as the ones claiming lives.

Tavernier completely eschews melodrama throughout, shooting his film as a seemingly improvised character study. Unlike the novella, which has little dialogue, the script gives these aristocrats a lot to say, and with such superb actors at his disposal, Tavernier’s film becomes a whirlwind of articulate, witty conversation. As the princess, the excellent Mélanie Thierry—she of the bee-stung lips—has an offbeat beauty reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer in another costume epic, Ladyhawke. Lambert Wilson’s count is another of this reliable actor’s accomplished portraits of quiet inner strength, also on display in Of Gods and Men. The trio portraying Montpensier, Guise, and Anjou—Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel and Raphaël Personnaz, respectively—combine youthful bravado with more subtly rendered tactfulness.

Philippe Sarde’s music, comprising low strings, woodwinds, and a battery of percussion, is one of this veteran composer’s most propulsive and exciting scores. The brilliant widescreen cinematography of Bruno de Keyser, a longtime Tavernier collaborator, is equally stunning in the expansively dramatic battlefield long shots and the hand-held camerawork that takes the pulse of these historical figures at close quarters. The passions contained in the film mirror the impassioned filmmaking of Bertrand Tavernier, a director who never hides his affection for the flawed, ordinary, all too human characters. Kevin Filipski
April 15, 2011



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