Apr 22, 2011

La Princesse De Montpensier

Imagine a reputable male Hollywood director and three male screenwriters making a film version of a historical bodice ripper. You'd have to be on 'shrooms.
But this is what they do in France, and they do it very, very well.
Why has the great Bertrand Tavernier set his sights on this historical romance? Certainly it is not to appease the 15 year old male demographic. Only towards the end of the movie, when I realized that the heroine of the title is beset by not one or two, but FOUR men who are hopelessly in love with her, I wondered, is this, in effect, the smartest chick flick ever made? My suspicions were confirmed when I saw who wrote the source material. None other but Madame De La Fayette, who published it anonymously.  A woman. From the 17th Century.  Cool.

But this movie is not a Harlequin fantasy, starring Fabio. It is an intelligent and clearheaded exploration of motives among the French aristocracy at the time of their religious wars (Catholics vs. Protestants, also called Huguenots; an extremely bloody affair). The tale explores the ridiculousness and obscenity of murder sanctioned by religion, and the cynical motives for power, which in those days was held by rich aristocratic families, not corporations. Power, in essence, was oftentimes achieved by marriage. The personal was political, because the personal did not matter at all. Love was not part of the equation; only connections, power, and clout at the court.
Marie de Montpensier (Melanie Thierry), the princess in question, is very lovely, smart, virginal and virtuous. But she is in love with the wrong Guise brother. No matter, since her father is soon convinced by another father to marry her off to his son (they are all cousins), in a complicated business transaction. In a wonderfully simple scene, Marie stands literally in the middle of the road as she sees the fathers of the two young men in question letting them know who they are marrying or not. She has no say in the matter.
She is willful and tries to fight it. Her mother convinces her to "submit", her cynicism about love and men belied by a loveless yet comfortable marriage. In a fantastic speech, I hope written by De La Fayette herself, the mother says something like "love is too complicated. There is not one day that I don't give thanks that it never was between your father and I". The movie is full of such exquisite French witticisms.
After all, all French nobility did all day was exchange bon mots, when they were not whacking themselves upside the head in the name of Christ.
In fact, the movie starts with extremely violent scenes of war. War on horses and swords, and some firearms, was a brutal affair and is depicted as such. Lambert Wilson, who used to be a hunk and is now one of the most melancholy men in cinema, plays a Count who deserts the army after he's had enough of killing indiscriminately. He is given refuge by his former pupil who then is married off to the Princesse. The young man soon leaves for battle again and commends his lovely, inexperienced wife to the care of the count, who instructs her and cannot resist her youthful beauty.  There is plenty of unrequited love in this tale, which is absolutely delicious.
I bet the filmmakers did extensive period research because the movie provides a fascinating glimpse into the customs of the age. People eat with their fingers, and on your wedding night there is a mob of concerned parents and servants standing right next to your bed, waiting for the white sheets to be stained, sealing the deal.
La Princesse De Montpensier is about two and a half hours long, but it is quite entrancing. The acting is excellent, the period detail down and dirty, and the story is a great yarn. Love does not triumph in the end. Which is fine by me.

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