Bernard Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier is a charmingly old-fashioned period piece set in 16th-century France during the European Wars of Religion, and stars Mélanie Thierry in the title role.
Thierry’s Marie is in love with her courageous cousin but is forced by her scheming father to marry the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) for political reasons. In so doing she is removed to a countryside castle where an ex-soldier, the Count de Chabanes (Lambert Wilson), becomes her tutor. When her husband is called away to fight, Marie spends her days in the company of Chabanes, who teaches her write, to appreciate poetry and to understand the machinations of the world she has been born into. She is to be a tool for the ruling men to work around; she is to be married off and forgotten. What she feels, he warns her, is out of synch with the politicians and aristocrats that dictate events, and as such she should play her part and try to accept it.
This section of the film is very enjoyable. Wilson gives Chabanes an empathetic and believable charisma that belies his sense of duty. We understand that, beneath his warm but steely composure, he has feelings just as Marie does; he’s just better at keeping them inside. Mélanie Thierry gives a strong performance in a role that could’ve been bland. Her transformation from giggling teenager to embittered aristocrat is touching; despite attracting the attentions of pretty much every man in the film, she is lonely. The machinations of the war pass over her: she doesn’t understand or seem to care. She admits to Chabanes, endearingly, that she doesn’t really know what the fighting is about. He, with all his experience channelled into his charismatic smile, tells her about the stars.
There are action scenes in the film, but they take a back seat. In a film that is technically very proficient in all areas, the battle scenes are something of an oddity. While the action is choreographed well, it lacks a real sense of heft; people are stabbed and slashed in relatively bloodless affairs that at times seem to be taking place in water; the actors glide around almost too slowly. I appreciated and enjoyed the way the action was shot – no jump cuts or flash editing – but at times the stunt work didn’t seem quite up to the standard of the choreography.
But this isn’t an action film. It’s a period drama populated mostly by young actors that do an excellent job. It’s played pretty straight (though Tavernier allows us a couple of wry laughs) and crucially it maintains the weight of a real drama, as opposed to feeling like a teen romance in a castle (which is essentially what it turns into). In some ways it’s a bit of a throwback – its sweeping scope relies not on battle scenes, but on conversations in castle corridors – but it has a modern sentiment that makes a heroine out of Marie, a clever woman with a big heart who was born in the wrong centur y. At the close it lacks an emotional punch, but perhaps that is the point; as we listen to Marie’s last, chastened speech, we understand how difficult life is going to be for her.