Swords cross, blood spurts and bosoms heave in The Princess of Montpensier, French director Bertrand Tavernier's thoroughly ravishing drama in which the backdrop of civil war (Protestants versus Catholics) and court politics constantly reminds us that, despite fetching frocks, life was generally not a heck of a lot of fun for high-born women in the 16th century.
The film is based on a 17th-century novella of the same title penned by Madame de La Fayette, whose later book, La Princesse de Clèves, is widely regarded as one of the first psychological novels due to its introspective take on the emotions of noble folk. The author's "modern" ideas are felt in Tavernier's film through punchy dialogue (frequent Tavernier collaborator Jean Cosmos's contribution is key) and that most crucial mood enhancer - music.
With nary a violin in earshot, Philippe Sarde's percussion-heavy score makes brutal sword skirmishes feel like special ops missions - it's far more subtle than the jolt delivered by, say, the 1970s rock soundtrack of A Knight's Tale but effective in keeping us from drifting into a familiar period-film trance while people in fabulous costumes ride on horseback across panoramic vistas.
Yet Tavernier resists the temptation portray the titular character, Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry), as a proto-feminist. By the time we catch sight of the Marie - dangling on the arm of scar-faced warrior Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), one of four noblemen ensnared by her beauty and quiet intelligence - we know she is merely chattel.
Her father has just "traded her up" to a more prestigious marriage to Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), negotiated in a hilarious scene as cutthroat as any modern backroom deal. And their wedding night is about as romantic as a trip to Wal-Mart, parents and servants hovering just outside the bed curtains while the union is consummated and Marie is (hurrah!) proven a virgin.
But Montpensier is soon called to war. He leaves Marie at his most remote castle in the trustworthy care of his former tutor Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who is charged with preparing her for life at the royal court.
In the film's riveting opening scene, Chabannes, the equivalent of a modern mercenary, slays a pregnant woman in battle and decides to lay down his sword. He needs to stay off the radar, so the gig educating his friend's young wife seems like a good idea .
Driven by Wilson's arresting performance, Chabannes becomes the emotional soul of the film. He's a poet, yet possesses many practical skills - and, like the viewer, realizes Marie's combination of beauty, wit and insatiable curiosity will be her undoing, even as he encourages her education. When her husband, de Guise and the heir to the throne, Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), instantly smitten by Marie's charms, all descend on the castle, Chabannes prevents catastrophe.
But later, in the bright light of the Paris court, such subtle manoeuvres don't work out so well. The Princess of Montpensier delivers all the pleasure of a sumptuous costume drama, but its conclusion is far more brutal and precarious than most standard period fare.
The Princess of Montpensier
- Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
- Screenplay by Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau and Bertrand Tavernier
- Starring Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel and Raphaël Personnaz
- Classification: NA
The Princess of Montpensier opens at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday.
Special to The Globe and Mail