Monday, May 16, 2011

The Princess of Montpensier

The Princess of Montpensier begins in the midst of a gripping hand-to-hand combat in 16th century France, as a count and a handful of his men hunt down an enemy on his own farm. As in later scenes of soldiers hacking away at one another in suffocatingly close quarters, director Bertrand Tavernier hammers home the brute horror of war, stripping it of any pretense of nobility. The 70-year-old director’s clarity of vision on the subject makes this one of the strongest antiwar movies of 2010, a year that included powerful documentaries like Restrepo and The Tillman Story.

But the main fight in The Princess of Montpensier is not the war between Catholics and Huguenots. It’s the rivalry for the heart of Marie (Mélanie Thierry), the princess of the title.

Tavernier and his co-writers based their screenplay on a 17th-century novella, and on the research Tavernier always does before resurrecting a past time and place in one of his authentic-feeling films. Whether Marie is learning to butcher a hog or being undressed in a roomful of servants on her wedding night, the details of her life are often startlingly unfamiliar, yet they never draw undue attention to themselves or detract from the authenticity of the characters’ emotions. When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, Tavernier talked about how he makes sure his scripts, sets, costumes, and lighting are historically accurate, so his characters will look and talk and act the way they should—and then he tells his cast and crew to forget everything but capturing “the passion and the emotion” of the story. Regardless of when his movies are set, he says, he films them in the present tense. “I’m not filming a Renaissance table. I’m filming a table.”

His method clearly works. He succumbs just once here to the impulse that sinks so many directors of costume dramas, sending the count into the heart of the historic St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre to rescue a woman from rampaging soldiers. But on the whole, Tavernier studiously avoids stagey set pieces and melodramatic swashbuckling, focusing instead on the texture of daily life in the castles of France (and, to a lesser degree, on its battlefields) nearly 500 years ago.

Marie is just 16 or so when we meet her, a gravely gorgeous girl in love with her dashing but destitute young neighbor, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). But her feelings don’t mean much to her parents, who trade her in marriage, like so much prize horseflesh, to Henri’s stodgy cousin, Prince Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet).

If anything, being married makes Marie more appealing to Henri, for whom wooing her is now a way to get back at his more privileged cousin as well as a pleasant pastime. Henri and Philippe are soon joined in their competition for her favors by a cynical young duke, who sees Marie as attractive arm candy. The stakes grow for Philippe as he gets to know his wife better and starts falling for more than her looks, but the men are motivated mainly by their love of the chase and their hunger to win the prize, whatever it may be. As Henri puts it of their competition: Marie is “a doe in our midst.”

Only the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), the man who led that charge in the opening scene, truly loves Marie. But Philippe enlisted the count to tutor his wife while he is at war, and the older man’s deep-rooted sense of honor prevents him from wooing his patron’s wife. Instead, he serves her faithfully, her only true friend and a witness to her blighted life.

As only we and the count can see, Marie is smart, self-aware, and hungry to learn. She’s also woefully ignorant, since women didn’t get much of an education in those days, and her choices in life are strictly limited even after marrying a prince grants her some status. Tavernier shows us the courage it takes for her to arrange for a romantic tryst with Henri. She may be tragically naïve about her lover’s feelings, but she’s true to her own, and she’s brave enough to risk everything—her social position, her wealth, and her husband’s budding devotion—for a shot at true love.

It’s sad to see social convention rob Marie of what might have been real happiness with the count, but the real tragedy of this all-too-relevant period piece isn’t her missed chance at love. It’s the human potential that goes unrealized in Marie, as it does in so many other bright, brave young women with the bad luck to be born into rigid patriarchies.

Written for TimeOFF

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