Taking advantage of a day off, I took a trip to downtown Schenectady to see Bertrand Tavernier's latest film at the GE Theater in the Proctor's Theater complex. Rather than dividing the original 1928 auditorium to get an extra screen, the Proctor's people built an IMAX-ready theater in the space next door, where the Tavernier was projected onto a huge screen for the amusement of a matinee crowd of perhaps a dozen people. That's too bad, because at least pictorially speaking, La Princesse du Montpensier was worthy of the big screen. It's Tavernier's adaptation of a story by the Princesse de Lafayette, a 17th century author, about the wars of religion and aristocratic intrigues of 16th century France. In those days the nation was torn between the Catholic establishment and the Protestant Huguenots, and the film opens with a skirmish from one of the religious wars, one of the episodes of violence that'll punctuate the actual romantic plot. The battle scenes are unromantic; Tavernier does without the pagentry of massive armies, making every encounter look pretty much like a skirmish, albeit a brutal one. In this opening fight, the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a Huguenot warrior, takes the fight into a farmhouse, where he ends up reflexively running through a pregnant peasant woman who'd just hit him with a log. Horrified, he resolves to study war no more. He ends up back among the Catholics, returning to the household of the Montpensiers, where the young Prince (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) had been tutored by him years before. Despite some small suspicion of his motives and loyalties, Chabannes is welcomed back by an admiring Prince, who eventually assigns this Renaissance man to train his new bride, Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), in the sociocultural niceties and the responsibilities of a lady of the manor -- everything from reading Latin to butchering game.
Marie, our title character, is a reluctant bride in an arranged marriage. It's virtually a commercial transaction that leaves her with little sense of privacy or dignity, at least by modern standards, as spectators settle in after seeing her stripped to listen in on the consummation and claim the bloodied besheet as a kind of trophy. Marie's heart belongs, if anywhere, to the dashingly battle-scarred Duke of Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). Montpensier is well aware of her mixed feelings and is jealously insecure about his own place in her affections. He worries when he learns that Chabannes, at Marie's request, has taught her to write; to whom would she want to write? The troubled young couple have at least one good night in the sack, but Montpensier is always too eager to return to war, as if to prove his superiority to Guise in that sector. He seems to realize, however, that Guise will always be the better fighter, and that increases his anxiety about the Duke as a romantic rival with whom he's all too ready to fight. Meanwhile, one of the royal family, the Duke of Anjou, (Raphael Personnaz), sticks his nose into Montpensier's affairs, in part because of his own attraction to Marie and in part to make mischief for Guise. As for Chabannes, his question is to whom he owes his first loyalty -- his former protege who is now his master, or his new protege, the princess. In the end, he perpetrates an almost Cyrano-like imposture, taking the blame for another man's amorous visit to Marie that costs him his place in the Montpensier household. He ends up in Paris just as the St. Bartholomew's Massacre breaks out, and rather than see helpless innocents slaughtered he finally takes up the sword again, just as he's come to terms with his feelings for the Princess of Montpensier....
Tavernier has a tricky balancing act to perform here. Despite the title, the opening scene creates an expectation that Chabannes will be our main character, and in a sense he is, though he recedes into the background for awhile as Marie's romantic entanglements claim the spotlight. At the same time, the story leaves you wondering about authorial priorities. Marie's amours seem trivial compared to even the limited scope of the religious wars we're exposed to. Moreover, Lambert Wilson (last seen here in the outstanding Of Gods and Men) easily outshines the callow youngsters in the romantic plot, including the indisputably attractive Thierry. Why should we care whom Marie loves? The answer seems to be that it matters to Chabannes -- indeed, it seems as if the truest love of all in the film is that which Chabannes ultimately expresses for her in a letter, and that Marie finally understands will be the one meaningful love in her life. But I'm not sure if I actually buy this. The moral seems to be that Chabannes had finally found someone worthy of self-sacrificing loyalty -- or had created someone in semi-Pygmalion fashion. Maybe I have a less generous heart, but I question Marie's worthiness, mainly because her obsession with Guise is lost on me. I guess that's why I don't usually watch so-called women's pictures. This one is still worth watching, though obviously more so for those more sympathetic with the genre generally, because Tavernier is his usual versatile self as a director, infusing every frame with atmosphere, and Wilson holds the thing together with a charismatic moral authority that transcends the trivialities in which he's enmeshed. If you're like me, however, The Princess of Montpensier will probably leave you looking for a good book on French history to get more of the story that matters.
This English-subtitled trailer for the U.S. release was uploaded to YouTube by VISOTrailers.