Desperate Houselords: Love, Lust & Loss in 16th Century France
For a film titled after a central female character, THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER is a bit of an anomaly. There’s definitely a princess in there, but the film seems far more at ease when exploring the personalities of the various men in her life, of which there were plenty. This isn’t to say that she’s marginalized as a character; much like Helen of Troy from the Trojan War, the young princess Marie (played by Melanie Thierry) stirs up much passion in the lives of men surrounding her. She delivers them to love. She stirs them to combat. She even forces them to think. But, also like the ill-fated Helen, her story centers of the tragedies she cannot escape. Beauty may be only skin deep, but its effects can withstand several lifetimes.
Marie de Mezieres loves her ruffian-cousin, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), but, in order to secure noble standing as well as property, her scheming father promises her hand in marriage to the Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). The “transaction” is sealed – indeed, the wedding and first coitus are witnessed by members of both families – and the prince orders his bride to be taken to his castle far away from lands currently waging war, Catholics versus Protestants. Once there, Marie is to be watched over and tutored to assume her role in society by the prince’s aide, Comte de Chabannes, a deserter given asylum by his one-time enemies. Under Chabannes’ watchful eyes, Marie becomes an aristocrat in her own right – a regular 16th century feminist – while she unknowingly awakens his heart to love again.
Pursuing historical accuracy for his period drama, director Bertrand Tavernier recognized that his cast needed to be deliberately centered around young actors. After all, life expectancy in 16th century France was likely in the mid-30’s to early-40’s, with young males starting their own families by age 14. (These facts are clarified by a French historian in one of the disc’s slim but helpful extra features.) As a consequence, the average twenty-year-old back then had lived a fuller life – with more useful life experience for the times – compared to today’s average twenty-year-old. Hence, Tavernier took a gamble in crafting a historical epic around young lovers when most studios probably would’ve preferred securing more established, bankable A-list talent to tell the story of emotional depth, unrequited love, and grand wartime spectacle.
Most importantly, does the risk pay off?
The results are mixed. While none of the younger males in the story show decidedly great range, the script never truly calls for it. Leprince-Ringuet, as the somewhat self-tortured prince, gets the most screen time of the younger male leads, and he ably handles the highs and lows of armed conflict down to the quieter moments with his young bride. The rest of the men seem to be playing mostly with limited focus: Raphael Personnaz chews a bit of scenery as the shrewdly duplicitous Duc d’Anjou (heir to the throne), and Ulliel adequately captures youth’s carelessness with abandon. These three play well off one another – succinctly, they play far more effectively off one another than Thierry, as the princess, plays off any one of them – and that’s mostly because each represents a different passion in life: principle, carnal lust, and power. The princess’s story is far more interesting when these young houselords (the seduction of comfort versus the seduction of lust versus the seduction of power) are around, and therein lies the weakness of Tavernier’s gamble: perhaps Thierry wasn’t strong enough an actress to make this love-triangle – then love-quadrangle, then love-pentangle! – truly succeed. Singly opposite any of these young actors, Thierry seems outmatched if not cinematically flat. She captures some moments, but far too much of the ‘meat’ of these emotions rests on the shoulders of men for Thierry’s Marie to seem much more than the confused pawn the story required her to be.
Where Thierry’s strengths feel far more legitimate is her pairing with Wilson, who serves as her mentor and genuine father figure. These two actors play amicable against one another’s strengths, deftly navigating through the forced roles they play in French society, reasonably concealing their true thoughts and desires until circumstances permit mutual moments of weakness. He answers her every challenge, and she questions his every wisdom. It’s a subtle emotional sparring match that works – the young maiden paired with a bachelor/mentor – precisely because of Thierry’s youthful obliviousness and Wilson’s learned experience. There’s a balance here that Tavernier saw in the script, and he capitalizes on it to good measure. It’s the only truly authentic relationship here, and, thankfully, it elevates all other relationships.
While the film has great production values overall (scenery, locations, and costumes are splendid consistently), there are times that the picture feels unnecessarily bloated in order to absorb all that the cast and crew contributed; arguably, the film’s two-hour-plus run time (2:20) could’ve been trimmed, and perhaps the story wouldn’t have felt so languid in its final half-hour. And while some of the larger action sequences are expertly staged in the war-torn landscapes, the smaller pieces play more like an afterthought; in particular, much of the prince and Henri’s duel for Marie’s hand seems stiff and even amateurish by comparison. Some of this could be due to the reality of war when men were schooled to fight en masse instead of mano-a-mano. The fact that neither lands anything close to a fatal blow – not even so much as a scratch on the other – feels a bit dishonest, given the obvious aroused fury that brought them into conflict.
The disc contains only a handful of special features. (Personally, I would’ve enjoyed a commentary track from the director, but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.) First, there’s a brief segment featuring a French historian who clarifies the historical accuracy of the picture. Second, there’s another short film (less than five minutes) that’s shot in way-too-curious close-up; it’s a brief interview with the director discussing his intentions behind making the film the way he did, his hopes for storytelling, etc. Lastly, there’s a twenty minute actor interview that features Melanie Thierry and Raphael Personnaz discussing their interpretations of their characters as well as the challenges of working in period films. I believe it’s from a French television program, but I could be wrong. (Yes, the interviews are spoken in French, but it’s all subtitled.)
THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER is a grand tale told against a backdrop thick with grand themes. There’s as much duty and honor wrapped up in the story as there is love and obedience. It’s honest to say that the film won’t be for everyone’s tastes as it deliberately strives for a period authenticity not necessarily common to bodice-ripping romances (of which there are plenty of bodies but very little ripping). In fact, the only nudity featured is hardly gratuitous, but I won’t spoil it for those who discover its rather clinical expression of nuptials. Certainly, director (and master) Bertrand Tavernier weaves a tale where war remains an ugly reality; at times, he shows that the challenges of religion and nobility can be equally horrific. In the end, epics are always stories about the people who lived through these trying times, and, on that substance, PRINCESS takes its sweet time (maybe too long) in upturning every stone here – a calculated, deliberate retelling that’s possibly as much historic as it is contemporary. While the pacing is far from perfect, it’s definitely a tale worth discovering.
In the fairness of disclosure, I wish to thanks the folks at MPI Home Video for providing me with this screener copy for the purposes of watching and reviewing this film.