Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Princess of Montpensier (2010)

A talkie, courtesy TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Toronto.

The ones you love are never far from your thoughts, even when they’re far away.

I think that sentiment’s universal. I think that, if you said it to someone centuries ago, they’d nod their head, a little sadly, just the same. But they might see irony in it that we don’t. We’re a society that travels fast and communicates even faster, and for whom boundaries like marriage are fluid and frankly, not that strong. In other societies, in other times, ‘goodbye’ might have been the last words a loved one heard from you for years. Or there might be no goodbye at all: just the long torture of close proximity between you and your beloved… betrothed to another by unbreakable bonds.

Proximity is one of many themes in Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier: a bulky, moody, but mostly very good historical drama; a film at its best when revealing the consequences of expressing human feelings in circumstances indifferent to them. The setting is 16th Century France; the circumstances: the renewed Wars of Religion between Catholics and Huguenots. The players: the French aristocracy and their attendants. In this unstable period, love was a luxury that had little, if anything to do with one’s decision to get married.

Even ‘decision’ is the wrong word. The future Princess of Montpensier, Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry) explodes when her father informs her of an arranged marriage to Phillippe, Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), a decent young man whom she does not love. Marie runs hot for Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel): a handsome, arrogant war hero and rival of Philippe’s.

Marie’s feelings are real, but not realistic. Philippe is her father’s choice, for his own reasons; even if he favoured the Guise family, it would be Henri’s brother Marie would have to marry. Accepting the news, she skulks to a nearby room, where Henri and his brother share a bed. The lovers grieve. Marie worries Henri’s brother will wake up. “He sleeps soundly,” says Henri, the smooth-talker. “Because he doesn’t think of you.” Can you imagine such intimate talk with so little privacy?

An extra-marital affair between nobles of equal rank could be, in this era, politically disastrous. That doesn’t stop Henri from trying it. He takes many stupid risks. But such is Marie’s appeal that he is but one of four men who desire her. She’s loved equally by her cuckholded husband; lusted after by the Duke d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), son of the Queen; and longed for, most purely, by her own tutor, Franҫois, the Count de Chabannes. The fact that Henri is the one she desires means nothing, since he cannot have her. Tensions mount, especially when events place them within love-making distance of one another.

Tavernier centres his film around Marie, showing her development from teenager to young adult; her strong will expressed first through petulance, then rebellion, and finally bitterness. That she could cause men to risk their lives in pursuit of her is believable enough: Theirry is an astounding beauty, and Tavernier gives us every bit of her, head to toe, clothed and nude. As a man, I enjoyed it. As a reviewer, though, it made me question my gaze.

Take Marie and Philippe’s wedding night, for example. Marie stands naked in her bed chamber, attended by her maids. Phillippe waits at the bedside. The bride’s father inspects her, before leaving the room to play chess with the father-in-law. Later, a servant interrupts the chess game with news. “We didn’t hear anything,” one of the old men complains. “There was just a little squeak,” the servant replies, “but there was blood.” The dads are pleased.

This is all grotesque. Yet, in this period, Marie’s beauty would be a commodity second only to her station; if her father was willing to sacrifice her happiness for political gain, is it such a rational leap for him to want proof of his investment? In a sense, he’s already violated her once. And Phillippe, handsome but socially awkward, must have been giddy at the sight before him, semi-public or otherwise. A man’s a man.

But then, that’s no excuse for how they behave. Marie’s not a seductress—that requires intent. For the most part she simply attracts, though she learns to act strategically to get what, or who, she wants. Of the four men, it is only Franҫois (Lambert Wilson) who has the maturity to resist her. He’s in the thrall of Marie’s body as much as the rest (and sees it in full glory at least once, thanks to the lack of privacy in the household), but does nothing to threaten her marriage oath.

Later, in a letter to Marie, Franҫois describes his love for her as “…the perfect friendship.” Maybe it is. Certainly, the learned man teaches her much. She’s a bright student, needing only someone who’ll pay attention to more than her looks to help her achieve intellectual refinement. Franҫois’ love for Marie is controlled, though not extinguished, by prudence. By refusing to act on his impulses, he embodies both the ideals of his time and the minimum standards of ours.

It’s just that he’s not very interesting. I get the point of Franҫois: he’s an ex-soldier, traumatized by an atrocity he was forced to commit in the holy war, unable to murder anymore for either side in the name of God; a man who sees neutrality as noble when any other option is sin. To take Marie—to even try—would be a violation of that same principle. But he has no true arc, and his brooding gets old, fast. He serves the plot as ably and obviously as he does the Montpensiers.

Is The Princess of Montpensier a feminist film? Perhaps. It has a heroine who defines her identity and fate on her own terms, for her own ends; and its villains are men who see her as a possession or a curse, or both. Even Henri, at one point, blames his feelings for Marie on Marie: she’s a catalyst for competition between him and other competitive men, and so he could not help himself. His ego is enormous. Had Franҫois provided a more compelling counterpoint, this would have been more powerful.

Ideological or not, The Princess of Montpensier is exceptionally violent: dirty, bloody in the battle scenes, though Tavernier never makes a spectacle of it. Likewise, his scenes of luxury in the various castles, over various feasts, and at various balls, project wealth and status without sumptuousness—preventing us from focusing only on clothing, jewels or plunging necklines. These people are rich and so are their surroundings, but here it’s an element of realism, not a gateway to fantasy. Many times, the rumble of horses’ hooves brings these privileged people new and awful news.

And anyway, what jewel could match the looks of Mélanie Thierry? Near the end, Tavernier lets the camera linger on her face a moment and we wonder, has she given up on love? ‘If she has,’ I thought, ‘what a waste.’

Where to find The Princess of Montpensier:
The Princess of Montpensier (La princesse de Montpensier) opens at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 3, 2011.

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