The Princess of Montpensier

The Princess of Montpensier

Static Mass Rating: 3/5

Release date: July 8th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 139 minutes

Original language: French with English subtitles
Country of origin: France

Director: Bernard Tavernier
Writer: Jean Cosmos, Madame de La Fayette (short story)

Cast: Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet

Some have credited the 17th century writer Madame de Lafayette, whose short fiction The Princess of Montpensier is adapted from, with having written the first ever novel.

What exactly constitutes a novel is still up for debate; but the argument which says that her tale about another princess, The Princess of Clèves, is the first also says that what makes it the first are the voices given to the inner worlds of its characters.

The Princess of Montpensier

Everything before, it would seem, could make do with showing what people said and did. But then, in the late 1600s, something happened which brought about the need to present the thoughts and feelings of these imaginary people in deeper detail – what could it have been?

Prepare yourselves. De Lafayette made the appalling discovery that women can have romantic feelings about people who are not – I repeat NOT – their husbands. Yes. I know it’s hard to believe. And of course if you don’t read novels you can’t have fathomed the truth, in which case I apologise for so savagely rending the veil. But there it is.

The Princess of Montpensier

The revelation required an entirely new genre of fiction. Overnight – it being night of course when such dark deeds are done – the literary landscape was changed forever. So guess what the degenerate Madame, wholesale vendor of Grand Siècle smut, is up to with her Montpensier? That’s right: sex! And war, to be accurate. Sex and war, Eros and Ares, le petit mort and le gros. These are the gods which preside over the soap-operatisation of religious civil war in Bernard Tavernier’s orderly and entertaining adaptation.

At the risk of sounding like a gaggle of Monty Python women, here is the farcical tangle of gossip which does for a plot. The beautiful Marie Mézières is in love with Henri de Guise and Henri, a gallant paramour known to his comrades as The Scar, seems to love her too – which is convenient as she is engaged to be married to his younger brother.

The Princess of Montpensier

But the scheming Duc of Montpensier gazumps the House of Guise by persuading Mézières senior that a union with his son would be more politically expedient. The hapless young Prince is called to arms shortly after a blundering wedding night, so he summons his friend and erstwhile tutor the Comte de Chabannes to educate (and presumably chaperone) the Princess in his absence. He proceeds to fall deeply but chastely in love with her. When the dandy Duc d’Anjou, later Henry III, squares the love triangle everyone gets rather hot under the Elizabethan collar.

Well-made, unostentatious and faithful to the spirit – if not quite letter – of the source text, The Princess of Montpensier avoids many of the pitfalls of period drama. Religious conflict and courtly intrigue frame an ambiguous tale of desire and loss which, foregrounding the violence and treachery which are never far from passion, reminds us that all indeed is fair in love and war.

The melodrama and narrative span of de Lafayette’s story suggested to me that it might have been better suited to serialisation on TV; yet while it is overlong, a steady tide of momentum does carry the film efficiently if unspectacularly.

The Princess of Montpensier

There are some good performances, notably from Mélanie Thierry and Raphaël Personnaz. But what exactly Lambert Wilson, who was outstanding in Of Gods and Men, is up to as the humanitarian polymath Chabanne I don’t know: the characterisation needs pathos but gets pathetic.

The unpretentious, small-screen aesthetic and understated score complete a smart, effective package. As entertainment with some historical and thematic interest, the adaptation succeeds where many other antique revivals have failed.

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