Bertrand Tavernier reinvigorates French costume drama with The Princess of Montpensier, a sprightly and stimulating historical romance that enthrals on a number of levels. Set during the religious wars that ravaged France towards the second half of the 16th century, the film concerns the beautiful Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry) who has been in love for years with the dashing Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), but finds herself forced into a politically expedient marriage to the decent-but-dull Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and thus torn between two men.
Adapted from the 17th century novella by Madame de La Fayette - which predates her most celebrated work, La Princesse de Clèves, France's first historical novel, by twelve years - this begins on one level as a familiar love triangle, but unfolds as so much more. The story is told largely through the eyes of a more mature and worldly-wise outsider, the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). Having fled the barbarity of the battlefield after accidentally killing a pregnant woman and a small child (a scene that immediately highlights the innocent casualties of war, which come to include concepts such as love, fidelity, morality), the penniless count returns to his position as the prince's mentor. When Montpensier rejoins the war, he instructs the count to prepare his naive teenage bride for life at the French court. The count teaches an eager Marie about astronomy, the arts, languages and living in harmony with nature, falling deeply in love as she blossoms under his tutelage. Tavernier charts Marie's growing intellectual awareness. As her mind expands beyond the cloistered castle walls, she starts to question the sexual politics of the age as well as the warped ideology behind the war (as Chabannes observes: "How can people of the same faith kill each other in the name of God?") and attempts to assert her newfound independence at court, with inevitably tragic though not necessarily predictable results.
In a very brave and open-hearted performance, fulfilling the promise hinted in her scene-stealing turn in Chrysalis (2007) and squandered in the substandard Babylon A.D. (2008), Mélanie Thierry makes Marie de Montpensier a very modern heroine. Not in that jarringly anachronistic way managed by certain Hollywood epics, but by subtly highlighting how fiercely intelligent and forthright she grows through her struggle to wrest control of her body and desires in an age when both were governed by the dictates of men. In a way she is emblematic of the slow move away from religious dogma towards enlightenment and intellectual freedom. However, as observed by no less surprising a personage as Catherine de Medici, Marie also embodies the tension between reason and feeling, an age-old dilemma that troubles many a headstrong young teenager to this day. Although the film touches on courtly intrigue and the infamous Huguenot massacre it avoids treading ground covered by La Reine Margot (1994) or the overblown Henry of Navarre (2010). The drama is smaller in scale, more intimate and arguably richer. Tavernier never divides his characters into good and bad. Each one exhibits equally admirable and deplorable qualities, with cuckolded Philippe a decent man caught unawares by circumstances and the more conventionally heroic Henri depicted as somewhat conniving, yet still somehow sympathetic. Lambert Wilson delivers a deeply affecting performance as the voice of reason and compassion in an otherwise Machiavellian era in French history.
There is a sterile, almost academic distance to many costume dramas. Not this one. Tavernier's camera floats on the wind, as if one with the earth, one with nature. He has experimented within the genre before, using hand-held cameras, modernist dialogue and absurdist humour in Let Joy Reign Supreme (1975) and again to more hit-and-miss effect in D'Artagnan's Daughter (1994). Here his innovations complement the story's ideas and coalesce into a sensuous, stimulating atmosphere almost worthy of Rousseau. Some critics objected to the inclusion of rousing battle scenes, seemingly in the manner of Ridley Scott, but these add a layer of visceral excitement while the contemplative drama is further leavened by a dry sense of humour. Notably the amusingly awkward scene where the young newlyweds' first sexual encounter is humiliatingly observed by a dozen courtiers, handmaidens and their parents.