A young noblewoman is torn between passion, duty, companionship and ambition, each quality personified by a different man, in compelling period drama “The Princess of Montpensier.” Like its heroine, helmer Bertrand Tavernier’s visitation to 16th-century France has both beauty and brains, and offers a portrait of renaissance life — complete with ethics now utterly alien to a contempo mindset — leagues more accurate than the most historical epics. In commercial terms, that will probably be pic’s fatal flaw: It’s simply too intellectual to cross over to the masses beyond Gaul, where the name cast and helmer’s rep should ensure considerable royalties.
Adapted from one of the earliest modern psychological novels, written by Madame de La Fayette and published in 1662, talky but subtle screenplay is credited to august Gallic scribe Jean Cosmos (a regular Tavernier collaborator), Francois Olivier Rousseau (“Nathalie”) and Tavernier himself. The story begins in 1567, a time when France was torn by a long stop-start civil war between Catholics and Protestants (the Huguenots).
Against this backdrop, action proper starts with the Marquis de Mezieres (Philippe Magnan) forging a deal with the Duc de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) to marry Mezieres’ ravishing daughter Marie (Melanie Thierry) to Montpensier’s son, dutiful Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). The two young people hardly know each other, and what’s more, Marie has feelings for her dashing cousin Henri de Guise (major Gallic star Gaspard Ulliel), but she obediently submits to the marriage like a good noblewoman would at the time.
After a wedding night overseen by representatives of both families, Marie and Philippe settle in his rustic castle Mont-sur-Brac. But Philippe is soon called to war, leaving his former tutor, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, best known offshore for “The Matrix” sequels), in charge of improving Marie’s literacy, general knowledge and manners.
Like every man in the film, Chabannes falls in love with his perspicacious young pupil. She, however, still has the hots for Henri, a passion that will eventually result in a tragic, bleak ending that won’t go down well with auds primed to expect true love to triumph. Even a goodly proportion of upmarket viewers may balk at the fidelity with which Tavernier sticks to La Fayette’s moralistic vision, intended to dissuade young gentlewomen for falling for the entrancing but dangerous delusions of the then relatively new notion of romantic love.
Tavernier skillfully unfolds pic’s dramatic intricacies in such a way as to engage interest throughout via mobile camerawork (courtesy of lenser Bruno de Keyzer, on his fifth film with Tavernier) and a sense that the story is always, literally, moving forward. Dialogue is constantly being exchanged as characters are riding horses or walking briskly along. Even when folks are just standing around in rooms, someone’s almost always doing something in the fore- or background. (Dozens of extras are often on hand playing servants, conveying a sense of how little alone people were in the olden days.)
Tavernier’s helming here is as elegantly fluid as his best work, weaving historical weft with private warp with the same seamlessness he achieved in “Life and Nothing But,” “Captain Conan,” and “Safe Conduct.” On home turf again after the mixed fortunes of last year’s American foray “In the Electric Mist,” Tavernier seems to have relaxed hunched shoulders with this quintessentially French tale, even though the lavish scale seen onscreen suggests it must have been an immensely challenging production to mount.
Braver still, there’s no sense here that pic is straining to be relevant to the present in any particular way. There’s no subtextual allusion really to contempo France or civil wars elsewhere in the world today, just the feeling that this is an interesting story in its own right, fascinating precisely because it’s so at odds with modern sensibilities.
On the other hand, tech credits never overdo the historical context, and though dialogue sounds lightly antiquated, it’s not as if everyone is speaking in proper 16th-century French. English subtitles on print caught are worth singling out for praise in rendering the French original’s distinctive flavor.