Based on a novel by Madame de la Fayette, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier tells a story of love, betrayal, jealousy and intrigue set against a vicious 16th Century French civil war that saw Protestants square off against Catholics.
On initial viewing, there is little to distinguish The Princess of Montpensier from the growing backlog of pleasingly cynical romances that have come to dominate French period drama over the last couple of decades. For example, if you liked the swashbuckling aspects of Philippe de Broca’s Le Bossu (1997) or the acute social commentary of Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule (1997) then you will find in Tavernier’s film elements of both. However, look beyond the masked balls and the buckled swashes and you will also find a film that is refreshingly literary in its approach to storytelling.
Many films are formulaic creations content to tell and retell the same stories that people have been telling to each other since fire met side and beer met lips. In these ancient narratives, character only ever serves as ballast as the issue is never what a particular character will do but which of his character traits will force him down the rabbit hole of conventional narrative form: is the young hero motivated by passion or by a desire to prove himself? Is his quest for truth, for himself or for love? An approach to narrative that prizes effectiveness of plot over respect for character and complexity is a fixture of genre and there’s a genre for everything these days. Thankfully, some works take a different approach in so far as they place the impetus not upon the plot but upon the characters. The plot, in such forms of writing, comes from the characters and not from some procrustean notion of what constitutes a story. This approach to plotting is particularly evident in the televisual writings of David Milch, whose Deadwood and John from Cincinatti both featured narratives that emerged organically as a result of having a bunch of well-drawn characters shoved into a confined space in which they are forced to interact.
The Princess of Montpensier is a film that is written very much in the Milchian tradition. It begins by introducing us to a series of characters and then waits patiently as these characters’ personality traits force them into conflict with each other. The characters in question are:
- Marie (Melanie Thierry): The beautiful and intelligent daughter of a wealthy but guileless nobleman.
- De Chabannes (Lambert Wilson): The accomplished scholar, courtier and warrior whose disaffection with violence has resulted in banishment from court and a job as Marie’s tutor in the courtly arts.
- Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet): The son of an ambitious nobleman whose character and skills never quite live up to his aspirations.
- De Guise (Gaspard Ulliel): The impossibly skilled and glamorous scion of the wealthiest family in the realm.
- Anjou (Raphael Personnaz): Son of the Queen and General of the Catholic armies.
For nearly two and a half hours, The Princess of Montpensier shows us what happens when some of the most accomplished, powerful and greedy men in France fall in love with the same woman. Some love her because others love her, some love her for who she is and some love her because she is theirs by right or by love. Regardless of their motivations and Marie’s attitude towards them, these men are all willing to stake everything they have in order to get what they want. The film’s plot flows naturally from the ensuing conflicts as disagreements, jealousies and insecurities pile on top of each other as irrational desires surge and spiral out of control. This treatment of irrational passion makes the film an interesting companion piece to Patrice Chereau’s Dumas-inspired La Reine Margot (1994), which features many of the same historical characters and settings.
La Reine Margot explains the French Wars of Religion by presenting Early Modern France as a bubbling cauldron of sexual, religious and political passions, passions that inevitably bubbled over into mass hysteria resulting in the demented carnage of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Chereau depicts Paris as a sweltering, flea-infested place that is so overcrowded and full of drink and hatred that the massacre could just as easily have been caused by a fight over a barmaid as by the desire to control the spiritual fate of the nation. Religious violence, for Chereau, is just an expression of humanity’s inherent psychological instability.
Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier opts for a slightly different approach by presenting 16th Century France as an eminently reasonable place in which people go about their business without being overly worried by matters of religion or love. Indeed, given that the plot involves only Catholic nobles, the Huguenots are absent from the bulk of the film excepting one brilliant scene in which their black-clad countenances are warped and rendered monstrous and ethereal by an imperfect pane of glass. By presenting the irrational conflict over Marie as an uncharacteristic moment of madness, Tavernier is presenting Marie as a sort of thematic placeholder for the high ground of French political life, whether it is secular or religious. By showing us how a number of powerful and accomplished men can destroy themselves for the sake of a woman, Tavernier is suggesting how the Wars of Religion might have come to pass, namely that it is a small step from a life of sanity to an orgy of blood and self-destructive violence.
Grounded in some beautifully drawn and wonderfully performed characters and boasting some neat sword-fights and battle sequences, The Princess of Montpensier is a timely reminder not only of the cynical wonders of French period drama but also of the astonishing richness of French history. The French Wars of Religion saw the French body politic tear itself to shreds as the desire for compromise and peace was driven out by a murderous need for purity and blood. By setting a tragic romance against this backdrop, Tavernier is warning us that human nature is so unstable that there is no telling when such moments of madness might grip us again.