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March 10, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier)


Published 8/3/11 by www.artshub.com.au

It’s a time-honoured tradition to have a stunning young female lead caught up between the conflicting passions of one, two, or in this case, three dashing gentlemen. But perhaps the tradition is not quite ‘time-honoured’ when it’s occurring in 16th century France, and the female in question is the Princess of Montpensier. Trust the royalty to do all the fun stuff first.

Inspired by a short story written by Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Montpensier follows the love triangle formed between Marie (Mélanie Thierry), her cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), and the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet).

As a young woman in a cold French society, Marie is captivated by de Guise, a flirtatious but poor aristocrat. Unfortunately, Marie is not her own woman; her father trades her for the sake of politics and arranges for her to be married to the Prince of Montpensier. This turn of events changes her; she becomes hardened by the reality of life but still so dangerously naïve that one wonders how she has survived this far. Her lover, Henri, is wonderfully truculent, at once noble and attractive yet incredibly taciturn in his decision-making.

With such promising interactions between these two individuals, it is all the more unfortunate that the Prince is relegated the least amount of screen time for character development. In comparison to Henri, the Prince is a crashing bore, honourable and loving but somehow passionless. Marie’s lover Henri and her husband the Prince might be brothers-in-arms on the battlefield, but it seems the chivalrous code of war doesn’t stand up when sexual prowess, pride and infatuation get in the way. When you have the enamoured de Guise battling for Marie’s heart, it’s difficult to empathise with the Prince when he displays such fundamental weaknesses of character and strength.

In contrast, Marie is a compelling character, made more interesting by her tender relationship with the Prince’s friend, her confidant the honourable Count de Chabannes (played by a sombre but stereotypically noble Lambert Wilson). While it’s a fundamentally conflicted role, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about the Count de Chabannes. He is more of a prop for Marie, useful in terms of illuminating the state of Marie’s mind, and her own battle between reason and emotion.

For the most part, The Princess of Montpensier is a film about the way grand aspirations and romanticism fall prey to reality. Mélanie Thierry does a commendable job as the Princess, darting between calculated manipulation and resignation so flawlessly that’s it easy to empathise with her. However, it’s also easy to dislike her character for being so vulnerable to emotion.

Director Bertrand Tavernier (Blank Slate, ‘Round Midnight) seems particularly strong at exploring characters who are visibly swayed by overwhelming feeling. Marie, the Prince and Henri are compassionately portrayed, which is probably what gives their characters a feeling of depth and intricacy. Tavernier resists the temptation to satisfy each of them under some bland banner of ‘love’ or ‘honour’; each is forced to pursue a certain level of contentment on their own terms, much like in real life. Contrary to the astronomical theories of unity and destiny spouted by Chabannes, it seems as though the central characters in The Princess of Montpensier are destined to bounce hopelessly off each other in a vain attempt to find a perfect fit.

The tensions between the embattled Catholics and Protestants in 16th century France seem a mere backdrop for the luscious love triangle evolving around Marie. While there are some particularly hammy death scenes during the battles, director Tavernier is obviously more interested in internal rather than physical conflict. I’m relieved to say that this is a wise choice. To embark on a violence-filled odyssey would have been to sacrifice the more rewarding complexities of the characters at the heart of this story, although at over two hours, this film never threatens to end too soon.

Tavernier’s Princess is, as the title suggests, the central element binding all other characters together. The Princess of Montpensier is a tangled web of relationships and misjudged attempts at connection. While predictable at some points, it achieves what most films of this nature usually fail to do—create characters worth caring about.

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