War, Duels, Heavy Breathing: The Princess of Montpensier

04/13/2011 4:00 AM |

The Princess of Montpensier

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier

Within minutes the director of Coup de Torchon and L.627 demonstrates his easy control of delicious material in his latest, a period film of love and power set in 16th-century France. Against a countryside whose rolling landscapes are fully felt, the total war of the era unfolds in running skirmishes, leading up to a vicious moment in a farmhouse that leads to the removal of one chess piece from the board for the most unusual reason of conscience. What follows: shifting of loyalties, jockeying for affections, and intermittent clashing of swords as the fetching princess (Mélanie Thierry) tolerates her prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), gets closely breathed upon by her preferred lover-scoundrel (Gaspard Ulliel), and learns Latin from the prince’s conscience-stricken, lovelorn friend (Lambert Wilson); the leering, raffishly attired Duke of Anjou (Raphael
Personnaz) also takes a fancy.

Adapted from the 17th-century tale by Madame de La Fayette, Tavernier’s film finds a remarkable register for its storytelling that encompasses the intrigue one might expect from the various romantic vectors and power plays, the theater of battle and duels (with eager female audiences for the latter), and the interstitial moments (particularly between Thierry and Wilson) that give voice to behind-the-scenes sentiments as yet unformed. Tavernier recently spoke of rendering these costume-drama characters at the speed of life, rather than as carefully preserved historical figures, and he succeeds, without the embarrassment of “updating” speech or behavior (with the sole possible exception of Thierry, whose appearance seems of the current moment more than the era). All in all it’s the best rendering of the passions and political recalibrations of an earlier time since Catherine Breillat’sThe Last Mistress.

Opens April 15