Marie is a beautiful young girl in 16th century France promised to the younger son of Cardinal de Lorraine (Jean-Pol Dubois, "Life and Nothing But") but in love with the older, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel, "Hannibal Rising"). Then her father's friend, the Duc de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz, "Wild Grass"), suggests that the arrangement should be changed, that Marie should wed his son Philippe instead, and a large parcel of prime hunting land that has been in contention between them will no longer be. At first, Marie is distraught, but even after she sets her mind to becoming a good wife the men who flock around her will not make life easy for "The Princess of Montpensier."
Director Bertrand Tavernier ("'Round Midnight," "Safe Conduct") has made quite an epic period piece from an adaptation of the 17th century short story by Madame de La Fayette (written with Jean Cosmos ("Conversations with My Gardener") and François-Olivier Rousseau ("Nathalie...")). Although the central story revolves around the loves and lovers of the princess (Mélanie Thierry, "Babylon A.D."), the historical setting of the religious wars between the Huguenots and Roman Catholics add to the interpersonal relationships and threaten the mortality of the men around her.
The film opens as the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, "Of Gods and Men") gallops through the countryside, slaughtering Catholic farmers. After killing a young boy and his pregnant mother, Chabannes decides there has been enough killing under the same God and deserts. Banished by both sides, Chabannes finds asylum under his former pupil, Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, "Love Songs," "La belle personne"), who asks him to stay with his young bride and teach her about poetry and art for her upcoming presentation at court. The young prince has been called back into battle and as the days go by, the older Chabannes is smitten by the beautiful and intelligent Marie.
Meanwhile, the King's son, the Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz, "Blame it on Fidel"), travels with de Guise, who has guided them off course, right into the path of his former lover. As Philippe returns home, he finds his wife being courted openly by the Duc and too assiduously avoiding de Guise. His jealousy overwhelms her when he should be wooing her and Chabannes takes on a Cyranno de Bergerac-type role, loving her but conspiring to arrange for her to meet de Guise.
The film is rich in period detail with stunning castles and costumes and medieval custom. The dialogue within the film's most central relationship - that of Marie and de Chabannes, is rife with undercurrent and foretelling. Does Marie wish to learn how to write to slip letters to Henri? Will her knowledge of the stars serve her well when presented to Catherine de Médicis (Evelina Meghnagi, "Ripley's Game"), a student of astrology? Tavernier often places a pink rose, a symbol of poetic love, within the frame with them, just as the costume designer connects the prince to his princess with fabric. Original music by Philippe Sarde ("Tess," "The Witnesses") really comes alive in battle sequences, all percussive discordance and horns.
The stunning Thierry gives a nicely layered performance, caught between desire and duty. Wilson plays the film's most morally heroic character, laced with melancholy. Leprince-Ringuet makes the princess likable enough that Philippe's emotional bullheadedness frustrates the audience. Ulliel, on the other hand, never makes his side of the grand passion seem anything more than physical desire. Personnaz plays the heir to the throne like a young rock star, a better choice than it may sound.
At 139 minutes, the film never flags. "The Princess of Montpensier" is an exquisite historical romance to immerse oneself in as it notes a brief period when the beauty of one high born woman cast a spell on many.
Robin's review coming soon...
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