Thursday, April 14, 2011

Passionate History

Wilson and Thierry in The Princess of Montpensier
The Princess of Montpensier
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Written by Bertrand Tavernier, Jean Cosmos and Francois Olivier-Rousseau
Starring Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel, Raphael Personnaz

Bertrand Tavernier’s superb historical drama The Princess of Montpensier is an artful, exuberantly visceral adaptation of a 17th century French short story by the Comtesse 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 midst of the French religious wars between the Catholics and Huguenots. The eponymous princess, beautiful, intelligent and independent, is not merely decorative, as most women of this era are. 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 Chabanes, his former mentor, whom we first see killing a child and a pregnant woman on the battlefield, 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 leaves the Count to teach his wife the finer things, like Latin, poetry, proper court behavior, even stargazing. The tender, intimate scenes between the Count and the Princess underline his pining love for her, of which she is blissfully ignorant.

It's no spoiler to say that, eventually, all four men—Montpensier, Guise, Anjou and Chabanes—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 Huguenots, first in Paris, then throughout the country—is persuasively re-enacted, its savage butchery recorded offhandedly as it takes the life of one of the film's protagonists, making it even more unsettlingly effective.

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

Tavernier completely eschews melodrama throughout, shooting his film as a seemingly improvised character study. Unlike the short story, which has little dialogue, the script gives these people 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 Melanie 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—Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel and Raphael Personnaz, respectively—combines youthful bravado with more subtly rendered tact.

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 long-time Tavernier collaborator, is equally stunning in the expansively dramatic battlefield long shots and the hand-held camerawork that takes the pulse of these characters at close quarters.

The passions contained in The Princess of Montpensier mirror the impassioned filmmaking of Bertrand Tavernier, a filmmaker who never hides his affection for the flawed, ordinary, all too human characters he records for posterity.

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