By Brian Lafferty
May 6, 2011 (San Diego) – The Princess of Montpensier is a movie that demands your utmost attention. I barely wrote down any notes out of fear I’d miss something important. The entire film hinges on every line of dialogue and every character’s actions. This likely explains why the two hour and nineteen minute running time flies by rapidly.
The film takes place in 16th century France, at a time when religious wars between Catholics and Protestants plague the country. At the center of it is Marie de Mézieres (Mélanie Thierry). Her father forces her to marry the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince Ringuet) against her will for his own political gains. Her heart, however, belongs to childhood sweetheart Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) who also harbors strong feelings for her.
The reason for my advice on paying attention is because it can be confusing in some spots. The plot is easy to follow but it took me a while to figure out which characters belonged to which factions, what they were fighting for, and other small things. The opening titles give some historical context, but it helps only a little bit. For me, I need images. A simple montage at the beginning would have been a more effective set-up.
Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I understood a lot that went on. The characters are well-developed and well-acted, and everything eventually made complete sense as the film neared its end. I just wish director and co-writer Bertrand Tavernier didn’t start the film so lazily.
Thierry possesses numerous traits suited for her role. Her face, and her eyes in particular, emit a high degree of innocence and naïveté. Passion and a variety of emotions including sadness, emptiness, and romance enhance her performance. Thierry injects a healthy dose of charm and allure into her character, making her ability to make men swoon more than believable.
Tavernier peppers the movie with a number of swordfights. Tavernier and Alain Figlarz choreograph these fights to the point of mesmerization. The movements of the actors, as well as their fencing, are fluid, adroit, and natural. Editor Sophie Brunet doesn’t cut quickly, preferring to stay on one take for a while. More exciting swordfights result because the longer takes 1) allow many opportunities for suspense and 2) the longer takes reveal the artistry and craft of these fights.
Tavernier, cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer, and set designer Guy Claude François incorporate a realistic look. The images lack elegancy. Only available light, mostly sunlight, is used. François’ gritty, grimy sets and unpolished look lend credence to the era.
Tavernier raises a lot of questions. This is one of those films that really made me think long after I saw it. I pondered what Tavernier was trying to say about the forced marriage, the affairs, and the consequences that result. I thought long and hard about how I should feel about it and how Tavernier wanted me to feel.
I eventually arrived at these conclusions, which I won’t reveal because I’d rather you find them out for yourself. A lot of times directors tend to force-feed messages to audiences. Tavernier doesn’t. Instead, he subtly guided me towards my conclusions, allowing me to do most of the figuring out for myself.
The Princess of Montpensier is now playing at the Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas.
An IFC Films release. Director: Bertrand Tavernier. Writers: Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau, and Bertrand Tavernier, based on a short story by Madame de La Fayette. Cinematographer: Bruno de Keyzer. Music: Philippe Sarde. Cast: Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel, and Raphaël Personnaz. In French, with English subtitles. 139 minutes. Unrated.