Epic and intimate, historical and contemporary, moving and thought-provoking, the impressive "The Princess of Montpensier" has something for all and sundry but especially for those who like to believe that films can be as boldly intelligent as they are entertaining.
As directed and co-written by the veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier with an expert cast of familiar and unfamiliar faces, "Princess" is a costume production rich in all manner of classic dramatic elements. Say hello to selfish schemes, bitter rivalries and the complexities of power and dynastic relationships at a time when France was divided by a bloody religious war between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots
But past the politics, what holds us absolutely is this film's unsentimental, far from conventional love story about that 16th century princess named Marie and the four very different men who became intoxicated — and not without reason — by this beautiful, intelligent and passionate woman.
This complicated tale holds us absolutely because, burdened with too much attractiveness and too little power, the princess of Montpensier (played with spirit and conviction by Melanie Thierry) is never in a position to enjoy her advantages.
As the intricate psychological interplay with these men ebbs and flows, the princess finds herself constricted by the emotional minefield of her precarious position. Not just because she's a woman in a chauvinistic age but because she's a person who values genuine feelings in a brutally cynical world.
As impressive as all this is (and credit goes to co-writer Jean Cosmos and the original 17th century novella by Madame de La Fayette), it's matched by the vividness of the film's bracing physical re-creation of France circa 1562.
Fluidly shot by Tavernier veteran Bruno de Keyzer, "Princess" is awash in strong and compelling wide-screen visuals, including chaotic battle scenes involving disturbing hand-to-hand combat and elegant swordplay. Both physically and psychologically (especially with its scenes of a wedding night as family spectacle), this film immerses us completely in that long-gone world.
"Princess" opens not with anything romantic but rather with a fierce sequence of combat in which the Comte de Chabannes, acting on battlefield reflex, destroys a family. The event so unnerves Chabannes, played with gravity and dignity by Lambert Wilson (the head monk in "Of Gods and Men"), that he quits the war right then and there. "No more barbarity for me," he says, adding later, "How can people kill each other and worship the same god?"
Chabannes has spent much of his life, apparently, as a tutor to higher nobility, and he now finds himself once again serving a former pupil, the upright and decent Philippe, the prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).
As the men get reacquainted, Philippe's father, the ruthless Duc de Montpensier (gifted Comedie-Francaise veteran Michel Vuillermoz), is involved in intense negotiations to marry his son to Marie, the kingdom's richest heiress and someone Philippe has never so much as met.
Marie, meanwhile, is engaged in heavy flirtation with another nobleman, the hot-tempered, hot-looking Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), whose motto is "I do not reason, I feel." She insists she will not marry Philippe, but then her father roars "this marriage suits me. You will agree or enter a convent."
A woman out of time who is troubled by contemporary concerns, Marie finds she must adjust as best she can to an age when women were chattel and whose thoughts no one cares to examine, let alone pay attention to.
When Philippe goes back to the war, he leaves Marie in the care of his old mentor Chabannes, asking him to instruct her in arts and poetry. Marie's gifts and her beauty inevitably attract this mature gentleman, as they do the visiting Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), a cold-blooded schemer who is also the brother of French King Charles IX. (Though this story is fiction, both d'Anjou and De Guise were real people.)
With all this going on, and more, we are fortunate to have a director of Tavernier's experience and skills. After more than 20 features, including "'Round Midnight" and "A Sunday in the Country" and nearly 40 years of work, his immaculate touch sees to it that the film's strongly feminist themes, its vibrant historical re-creation and its involving, emotionally realistic story never get out of balance. This is not only about a time that is no more, it's filmmaking the way it used to be.