Veteran filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has been making films since the 1960s, getting his start working with the great Jean-Pierre Melville. One of Tavernier’s first features, The Clockmaker, won the Prix Louis Delluc and the Silver Bear (Special Jury Prize) at the 24th Berlin International Film Festival. A lifelong admirer of American filmmakers, Tavernier made the trip to the US to shoot In the Electric Mist with Tommy Lee Jones, and publicly commented on not having “anything in common” with a new generation of American directors. Indeed, In the Electric Mist was released in two versions: one for the US, and another for the rest of the world. After this brief trip way down south, Tavernier returns to his native France to tell a tale as old as time.
Based on a short story of the same name by Madame de La Fayette, one of France’s first novelists, The Princess of Montpensier (La princesse de Montpensier) is set during the Wars of Religion in the latter half of the sixteenth century. In the adaptation by Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rosseau and Tavernier, it is the figure of the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, Of Gods and Men) that ignites the tale when he tires of fighting and elects to become the tutor of the troubled Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry, Babylon A.D.). Meanwhile, Marie has her own set of problems as she is forced into a loveless marriage with the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) while passionately in love with Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel, Hannibal Rising).
The Princess of Montpensier, devoid of the flashy whizbangery of Hollywood’s historical epics (where CGI is commonplace), is a surprisingly modern take on a well-worn period of history. Aside from the excellent young cast of internationally unknown actors, there is a fresh feel to the filming that belies (or perhaps confirms) Tavernier’s decades of work in the film industry. The stunning Cesar Award-winning costumes dazzle the eye sockets and barely restrain the heaving bosoms of unrequited love. Contrasting this pleasantly is a modern sensibility that manifests itself not only through the swordplay and battle sequences, but in a steamy kind of romance that almost winks at the audience in self-awareness. Tavernier has commented that he was inspired by the unlikely source of American Westerns for many of the scenes in the film, noting that many important conversations took place on horseback in the filmed version of the American West. Carrying that concept over to the Wars of Religion gives us a drama that is quite literally always moving, and a sense of momentum that is often lacking from other more stilted costume dramas.
This often complex storyline, made even more so by the unnecessary addition of the Duke d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) as an additional pursuer of Marie’s affections, toes the delicate line of being a soap opera of epic proportions, but manages to remain grounded thanks to the excellent cast. The main male leads of Ulliel and Leprince-Ringuet bring the passion, and it is amazing just how much the Twilight films have borrowed from these archetypes. The third young male suitor, Personnaz, comes in with the requisite swagger of a gunslinger from the films Tavernier admires so much, and is the toff to Ulliel and Leprince-Ringuet’s emo. Although her character is somewhat underdeveloped, the beautiful Thierry provides ample fuel for the intricate and fiery love pentagon at the heart of the story, although it is with the always excellent Lambert Wilson that the real pathos of the film lies. As someone both complicit in aiding Marie’s attempts at regaining true love, along with being hopelessly in love with her as well, his tragic nobility is the audience’s ticket into this rarefied world.
The Reel Bits: A sweeping historical epic of the first order that makes full use of, but is never overwhelmed by, the lush settings at Tavernier’s disposal. Gorgeous award-winning costumes, fresh young faces and experienced cast alike make this a fascinating film to watch, even if purely for the visual magnificence.
The Princess of Montpensier is screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2011.