Though it may be set against the backdrop of a 16th century battlefield, seasoned French director Bertrand Tavernier’s 25th feature film isn’t so much a war between nations as it is a war between the sexes. Examining the line between male entitlement and female obedience, Tavernier makes room for the kind of rich subtext he’s known for.
“The Princess of Montpensier,” based on a classic story of the same name, written by Madame de Lafayette, begins in 1567, a time when France was experiencing a bitter civil war between the country’s Catholic and Protestant populations. Amid all the squabbling, a wealthy king, played by Philippe Magnan, marries off his 17-year-old daughter Marie, played by Melanie Thierry, to Philippe, the meek prince of Montpensier.
Trouble brews as Marie continues to harbor lustful feelings for her dashing cousin Henri, played by Gaspard Ulliel. Also setting his sights on Marie is her middle-aged tutor Chabannes, played by Lambert Wilson, a Protestant deserter trying his luck at winning over the wealthy young heiress.
The film is a coy denigration of a time when men were men and women were possessions. While indignant, Marie is at the mercy of her suitors and their varied demands. This dynamic makes for a moral tale that challenges notions of gender roles.
As each beau pushes and pulls Marie, her oppressed sexual identity marginalizes her already downplayed role as a female in 16th century France. It is in this social commentary that the film finds its central conflict.
Tavernier continues to employ his classically influenced directorial style with a penchant for visual flair. Emulating the poetic realism of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne, his camera moves with an elegant fluidity that’s as regal as the era he’s depicting. “The Princess of Montpensier” is constantly in motion but never feels hurried.
Tavernier’s historical epics generally tend to feel as if they were set in present day. However, “The Princess of Montpensier” is sometimes alienating considering how disparate the social mores of the era which it depicts are compared to ours. To put it bluntly, scenarios portrayed in this film just don’t happen anymore.
While it can certainly be said that gender inequality remains prevalent in modern society, the disparagement seen in this film is of a different kind entirely, in which oppression runs rampant and is treated as second—even first—nature. As a result, it’s sometimes difficult to find space for reflection.
What makes this story feel authentic is Tavernier’s commitment to characterization. Like so many of his past protagonists, Marie is an introvert navigating a highly social environment. Virtually every scene in the film is brimming with actors and extras, rendering the more solitary moments as opportunities for escape.
But in filling the frame with as many people as he can, Tavernier displays the microcosmic nature of Marie as she wafts through her surroundings. As a result, the setting serves the action and not the other way around.
The film isn’t all subtext. Stylization is always a large component of Tavernier’s aesthetic, and this film proves to be his most picturesque in years. “The Princess of
Montpensier” benefits greatly from the graceful costuming and robust French countryside photographed dexterously by cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer. In typical fashion, Tavernier renders his film stunning to behold.