Love without romance
By Mark Jenkins
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Alternating between the boudoir and the battlefield, “The Princess of Montpensier’’ includes scenes driven entirely by lust or fury. But the protagonists of this gorgeous, very modern 16th-century drama are often gripped by a more mundane feeling: confusion.
Take, for example, the title character. When introduced, beautiful Marie (Melanie Thierry) is not a princess, merely a very marriageable French heiress. She’s upset when her calculating father breaks her engagement in order to secure a marital connection to the prestigious Montpensier family. Marie doesn’t love her new fiance, Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), but then she didn’t care much for the old one. She wanted his dashing, battle-scarred brother, Henri (Gaspard Ulliel).
That desire isn’t entirely in the past tense. Even after she’s wed to Philippe, Marie pines for Henri. Marie’s new husband is the jealous type, but at first he’s too busy fighting Protestants to pay much attention. Eventually, he realizes that his bride has not one but three ardent admirers. Besides Henri, there are the Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), who’s next in line for the throne, and Philippe’s onetime tutor, Comte de Chabannes (the great Lambert Wilson, recently seen in “Of Gods and Men”).
Chabannes arrives on screen first, in a prologue that shows the brutality of the ongoing war between Catholics and Protestants. Battling for the latter, Chabannes and a few cohorts attack civilians who’ve taken refuge in a stable. Chabannes awakes from his combat delirium when he realizes he has just killed a pregnant woman, and he renounces the conflict. A lucky meeting with Philippe leads to a job teaching Latin to his old pupil’s new wife. Soon he’s in love with Marie, although a good deal less pushy about it than Henri or d’Anjou.
The vivid battle scenes are among the things director and co-writer Bertrand Tavernier added to Madame de La Fayette’s 1662 story. At times, “Princess’’ resembles a widescreen Hollywood western, with exhilarating Steadicam shots of horsemen galloping across broad plains and corpse-strewn fields.
The versatile Tavernier, who just turned 70, is not the most confrontational of contemporary French directors. But he’s never glamorized war, and he’s not inclined to let his characters off easy. That’s why he depicts Chabannes as a man who’s horrified not simply by what he has seen, but by what he has done. History buffs will not be surprised when Chabannes ultimately finds himself in the midst of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, one of the grisliest events in French history.
Life as a princess is no fairy tale, either. Marie is treated as a commodity, and her carefully supervised wedding night could hardly be less tender. “The Princess of Montpensier’’ features sumptuous costumes, grand vistas and swooning emotions, but it’s much too clear-eyed to be a romance.
Contains violence, nudity and sexual situations.