Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 15, 2011 7:58 pm 
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Lambert Wilson and Melanie Thierry in The Princess of Montpensier

Love and war in 16th-century France

A lot is going on, foreground and background, in this fluid, grand, and rich French historical film that shows the eclectic, not always on point Tavernier at very near his best. The time is 1562, in the middle of the 35-year period at the end of the sixteenth century when France was torn by war between Protestants and Catholics. The milieu is the nobility. The motive force of the drama is a marriage deal, which at the time and at this level, was also a kind of political treaty. The Marquis de Mezières (Philippe Magnan) arranges with the Duc de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) to marry his beautiful daughter Marie (Mélanie Thierry) to Montpensier's son, the well-behaved Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), who can be counted on to comply. The complication: Marie has long been in love with her dashing cousin the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel).

Casting is good to great here. Thierry, known from French TV, is voluptuous and sweet. Leprince-Ringuet has the politesse along with the sense of physical meekness that goes with his position as one overshadowed by a rakish lover. Ulliel, now more and more a star, has a chance to blend his new macho maturity (and recent experience in costume film) with a certain arrogance, though he lacks the subtlety he displayed in his earliest films. Marie makes no objection to her father's plan. Philippe and Marie are married, and both families supervise as the marriage is consummated. But Philippe is soon off to war -- without even having gotten to know his wife -- and the care of Marie falls to her noble tutor, the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, at the top of his game and currently in Xavier Beauvois' outstanding Of Gods and Men), who falls for her too. Chabannes can play this pedagogical role because he has become infuriated by the religions wars and thrown down his sword, thus making himself into a kind of outsider. The film opens with a battle scene and ambush that might be a little too conventional were not their purpose of showing Chabannes' disguist at blood-letting. He provides a detached viewpoint with which the modern audience may identify. Older but still handsome, and a man whose culture it will serve her to absorb, Chabannes does not fail to appeal to Marie, though he must restrain himself whenever he's with her. As for her, she till desires the Duc de Guise.

It's worth mentioning that this is all from an important contemporary long story or nouvelle, sometimes called the first novel, by Madame de Lafayette; and that in keeping with the period, Marie's dilemma is resolved in ways that conform not with modern post-romantic sensibilities but with the ruthless manners, mores, and rules of the time. Though the dialogue is not deliberately archaic, Tavernier and his co-adapters Jean Cosmo and François-Olivier Rousseau make no effort to bend the tale into commentary on current events but keep its intractable strangeness and compelling intensity.

Marie has another admirer, the Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), the king's brother and destined to become king himself (Henri III). Personnaz and Wilson emerge as the most interesting actors, and characters, in the film. During a truce, Anjou officiates in Paris at a duel between Philippe and the Duc de Guise. There's a lavish Moorish-themed ball at which further intrigue develops.

Mélanie Thierry's television background testifies to her beauty and basic acting chops, but she lacks the solid film experience necessary to give subtlety to her role. She is one reason that the film falls short of greatness. But it deserves high marks anyway. Philippe Sarde’s music and Bruno de Keyzer’s Cinemascope camerawork are impeccable and contribute to the film's constant momentum and grand scope. To be sure, The Princess of Montpensier lacks the ravishing bloodiness of Patrice Chéreau's visually splendid, operatic Queen Margot, which takes place during the same violent period but ten years later. Tavernier's film is in a gentler key. Montpensier's best moments are not on the battlefield or the boudoir but in the courtyard or the drawing room, when the Duc d'Anjou's sparkling wit or the Count of Chabannes' suave self-discipline are on display. Its essential beauty and historical truthfulness lie in the way it balances the scenes of battle and court with intimate moments, always making clear that those to the manner born are never lonely and rarely alone -- just as, in the chess games of love and war, their personal wishes are never allowed to triumph over the duties of class. Love is not separate from war but a form of war in itself, and in this chess game there are many players and mate threatens every move.

La princesse de Montpensier/The Princess of Montpensier debuted in competition at Cannes last summer and has since been shown at several film festivals, including Munich, Chicago, and the present one, the San Francisco Film Society's New French Cinema series in October 2010. It opened in French theaters November 3, 2010. Distribution rights for the United States were bought in Cannes by IFC Films, who will release it on April 1, 2011 It was screened as part of the March 3-13, 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, the IFC Center in the West Villlage, and BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

This review was published earlier in connection with the SFFS New French Cinema series in October 2010.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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