Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Princesse de Montpensier

2010. Dir: Bertrand Tavernier. Starring: Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel and Raphaël Personnaz. ●●●●○

About 17 years ago I did my GCSE exams, the first level of secondary exams that basically decide whether you have the academic potential to move on to Advanced and later undergraduate level studies. In those exams I did well at Maths and Drama but received a poor result for History and utterly failed in French. It could therefore be considered surprising that I went to see the Gallic historical drama Princesse de Montpensier, however I am pleased to report that even someone as ill-prepared for the experience as I am can enjoy the bodice ripping, intense action and fully formed subtext.

Taking place in 16th Century France against the backdrop of the civil wars between the Catholics and Huguenots (culminating in the St. Batholomew's Day massacre) the plot revolves around the eponymous Princess (Mélanie Thierry) and the four men who fall for her, principally the rivalry between her husband the Prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and her childhood sweetheart Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). I'm getting ahead of myself though, as much as the Princess is the central figure the film takes a while to introduce her, reflecting the role of women in society - even among the upper echelons of society - where they are frequently defined by their relationships with men.

Instead we start on the battlefield, observing the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) commit war crimes and then, overcome with guilt and remorse, vow to never again raise a sword to defend a faith system, especially given the civil war can be boiled down to a literal understanding of transubstantiation. Like all tragic figures his epiphany and the reasons behind it takes him down the path that will ultimately lead to his downfall, but not before he enters the service of the Prince de Montpensier as a tutor to his bride-to-be, instructing her in the customs and politics of the court.

Which is when we meet the respective fathers of the Prince and Princess, hammering out the terms of the nuptials, like a trade agreement they discuss the political ramifications for each of the Princesses suitors, with the Duc persuasive and brusque taking control over the situation and shafting de Guise.

Finally the decision having been made it is time for all parties to be informed including the Princess. Initially she rails against the decision in a petulant and unseemly manner before her mother, older and wiser, reminds her that duty must come before love and that a successful union can be made with the inconvenient L word being necessary. It's worth noting that de Guise doesn't take it well either, nearly entering into a duel with the Prince.

Later we meet a the final piece in this love quintet, the Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz - unfeasibly attractive to play the smallpox infested royal Prince from history books but there you go), commander of the monarchist armies during the Wars of Religion and architect of the Edict of Beaulieu establishing peace (for a bit), who is misdirected through the castle of Montpensier by de Guise and promptly decides to attempt to woo the Princess as a mistress, inviting her through his mother, Catherine d'Medici, the de facto head of state in France.

All this and we're still only halfway through the film. All this may appear to add up to a complex and unyielding plot, however whilst it moves on at a pace with the characters shifting their loyalties on a regular basis, all of the individuals are so well defined, with their weaknesses and motivations so clear these machinations become organic and often understandable. Each of the men using the full reach of their power or influence to try to persuade the Princess of their innermost desires.

Thierry gives a fine central performance, at once headstrong and passionate and yet her attitude changes throughout the piece, revealing the sheer force of society in taming her. Among the men Wilson and Personnaz do fine work but it's the cuckold Leprince-Ringuet who steals the plaudits in my eyes, he is a proud and haunted figure unable to grasp his wife's lack of loyalty, given to melancholy and a depth of emotion that pushes through the language barrier.

Of course when you watch a film like this it's hard not to focus on the fine technical work from the costume design department and the fine location work (much of the film was shot on external locations). Phillippe Sarde's score was also suitable resounding, although not as memorable as his work for Tess. There is also a telling amount of period detail, confirming the painstaking research from the writing team, everything from contemporary recipes for eels in garlic, to the rituals of the marital bed even the importance of astrology drift through the action and helping to contextualise the positions of the central characters. On a more artistic note the writing, even the subtitling, occasional veers towards the poetic, Chabannes in particular is prone to use beautiful prose and metaphor in his tutoring of the Princess, one speech in particular - ostensibly about the physics of celestial bodies yet also pertaining to the vagaries of the court - is a delicious soufflé of ideas in the mouth of Lambert.

Director Bertrand Tavernier, 70, may not be the angry young auteur he once was, however this bodice ripper with a brain proves he still got it where it counts. I'd heartily recommend this movie, however much the combination of French and History scares you.

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