France, 1562. The wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants rage against a backdrop of intrigue and shifting alliances. Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry), a beautiful young aristocrat, and Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), one of the kingdom's most intrepid heroes, are in love, but Marie's father promises her hand in marriage to the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). The prince takes Marie back to his chateau, where she is tutored by Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), the Protestant deserter he protects, who soon falls in love with the young woman. Then, on their way back from battle, Henri de Guise and the Duke d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), the heir to the throne, stop at the chateau. Henri and Marie realise their feelings for each other are as strong as ever...
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: In an extended sequence that is both tellingly executed and masterfully cut together, veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier gets to the heart of his stern take on the period melodrama in his latest movie, The Princess of Montpensier.
1567: two young members of the aristocracy, Marie (Mélanie Thierry) and Phillippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), have just been married. It was arranged, akin to a business negotiation, in a meeting between their respective fathers, and at the wedding banquet Marie’s father talks about how he had the eel they’re dining on prepared. As he speaks, the camera takes up in the newlywed’s bedroom, where Marie is prepared for her husband, as her father-in-law appraises his chattel. When Phillippe enters they go to bed, but retainers stay in the room, awaiting Marie’s defloration. In the next room, the fathers play chess, continuing to move pieces. When the bloody sheet is presented they are satisfied.
Tavernier, so often a director drawn to mysteries, whether of murder or the natural flow of power, approaches the rich costume piece with the aim of showing how the romantic devotions and grand gestures are at odds with the cold application of direction. Here the elegant lace glove masks a steel fist, or as Marie subsequently observes, upon receiving a letter from Phillippe, 'a request is an order".
Back from one of his periodic excursions outside France, for 2009’s contemporary New Orleans-set In the Electric Mist, Tavernier physically shows the structures of control – father over daughter, royal over subject – that can casually change a life. Marie had hoped to marry the dashing Henri (Gaspard Ulliel), but it does not happen, much to the passionate young man’s chagrin, yet her mother’s counsel is to settle for Phillippe, to play the games of royal court but leave herself a defensible position. Some of the generals in this film wear skirts.
The movie places these emotional travails against the historic backdrop of France’s Wars of Religion, between the Catholic majority and the Protestant Huguenots (certain events, and supporting characters, from here also featured in Patrice Chereau’s 1994 picture Queen Margot). Shot on the move, to match the confusion of conflict, these battle scenes are necessarily bloody (and, thankfully, filmed in long takes that maintain a clear spatial sense), driving back to Phillippe and his father Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a scholar and minor noble who can no longer tolerate the indiscriminate killing. He, like Henri and Phillippe, is besotted with the ravishing Marie, but he understands his place, and why he must commit to nothing but words.
Henri, however, continues to actively pursue Marie, which only adds to the jealousy that seethes through the otherwise levelheaded Phillippe. But with her bee-stung lips and Slavic cheekbones, Melanie Thierry looks too modern for such a crucial part and Tavernier and his writers, liberally adapting a 17th century short story, can’t quite place her amidst the themes. As a young woman, she is excited by moments of passions and well aware of the risks, but her vacillation between the head and heart can only be expressed through the indecision of youth, and the lasting effects never quite resonate.
Still, it is a pleasure to see Tavernier working in this unexpected setting – this is a long way from L.627. He is never dominated by the production design, and like Marie, who fears encountering Henri, he keeps away from royal court until well into the movie. He gives us the period detail, but makes it contribute to the narrative. An establishing shot of a castle doesn’t linger, but cuts to Marie atop a tower, watching the tiny figures frantically riding towards her across distant fields. At once you sense the grand passion and the insignificance of these individuals. It’s a fascinating combination.