Review: The Princess of Montpensier – Presented by the TIFF Bell Lightbox

By Julian Carrington


Given that royal weddings are presently all the rage, and that bodice-rippers have never gone out of style, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier – filled, as it is, with bodice-clad royal betrothed – has the apparent makings of a stirring period crowd-pleaser. Adapted from a 1662 novella of the same title, it’s the story of no less than an aristocratic love pentagram, set amid the on-again, off-again squabbles between French Papists and Protestants, circa 1567. Unfortunately, while its production values and swashbuckling set pieces are generally very good, its muddled, melodramatic plotting is far less so.

Inasmuch as it can be summarized, the narrative chiefly concerns the matrimonial trials and tribulations of the radiant teenage heiress, Marie de Mezières (Mélanie Thierry). Initially promised to one nobleman, Marie is madly in love with another (Gaspard Ulliel as the dashing, roguish, Henri de Guise), but, thanks to some eleventh hour politico-patriarchal maneuvering, is ultimately compelled to marry a third: The Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet).

On hand just long enough to consummate the marriage (before an entourage of onlookers, in apparent accordance with startlingly awkward 16th-century tradition), the decent but insecure young prince is recalled to battle, and leaves Marie in the tutelage of his trusted former mentor, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). Brief lessons in Latin and astrology later, Chabannes, too, has fallen for Marie, like seemingly every male character on screen. Chabannes is loyal enough to his protégé, the Prince, not to act on his ardor, but that certainly isn’t true of de Guise, who, now a decorated soldier, reencounters Marie when she and her husband are summoned to the Royal Court. Nor is it true of the cunning Duc d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), heir to the French throne, who likewise covets her beauty.

Aroused, in every sense of the word, by the competition for Marie’s affection, de Guise abandons any pretense of subtlety, and woos her openly, to the fury of the Prince. In turn, Marie’s passion for de Guise is swiftly re-ignited, while her husband’s increasing jealousy only drives her further away. Forgetting his earlier loyalty, Chabannes, meanwhile, colludes in their adulterous betrayal.

Despite the film’s significant length (139 minutes) and conventional tone, the pacing and dynamics of its central romantic intrigues feel better suited to farce. Marie’s good looks are ostensibly instantly irresistible, and Tavernier demonstrates little inclination to establish her as more than merely a pretty face. Similarly, de Guise remains a handsome Harlequin archetype, bold and brave, but otherwise blank. All told, their nearly comically irrepressible mutual attraction appears to boil down to a mutual throbbing in their respective loins. We are no doubt meant to sympathize with Marie in her gilded cage, but her lustful impulsivity detracts from the gravity of her predicament.

In mitigation, she, at least, is subject to the naivety of youth. Chabannes is much older, and should be much wiser, but his credulity-straining conflicted allegiance is representative of the degree to which he remains underdeveloped, despite being a central character.

A tightly focused adaptation would have gone some distance to adding emotional heft, but Tavernier and his fellow screenwriters have instead crafted a more epic, if slightly empty spectacle. On those merits, there are features to admire: it’s generally well acted, while the cast, costumes, and Courtly surroundings are all easy on the eyes. These breezily Shakespearean trappings help pass the running time entertainingly enough, but, beyond that, there’s certainly no mistaking The Princess of Montpensier for the work of Avon’s Bard.

The Princess of Montpensier screens exclusively at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, June 3 through June 16. Visit www.Tiff.net for show times and ticketing details.

55/100 – While its production values and swashbuckling set pieces are generally very good, its muddled, melodramatic plotting is far less so.

Toronto Film Critic. A graduate of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, I haven't let my regrettable decision to drop Cinema Studies 101 deter me from becoming a pretentious, know-it-all film snob.