The Princess of Montpensier (IFC Films, NR)

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Tavernier builds up a complex picture of social relations in 1560s France with a large cast and great attention to the details of costumes and other period elements.

 

 

There's something about Marie. Men can't seem to help but fall in love with her, and it's not just because she's the heiress to a great fortune. She's also strikingly beautiful, intelligent, and has that je ne sais quois that separates the extraordinary from the ordinary.

Marie is Marie de Menzieres, later the Princess of Montpensier. If she were alive today she might be a bestselling author, a world-class scientist, or an international film star. Or, heaven forbid, the next Paris Hilton. But Marie lived in 16th century France and had exactly two options in life: marry the man chosen by her father or enter a convent. She chose the former.

Marie's fortunes are the subject of Bernard Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier, adapted from Madame de La Fayette's short story. The film begins in 1562 during the Wars of Religion in France, with Marie (Melanie Thierry) enamored of her cousin the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). However her father (Phillippe Magnan) essentially sells her in marriage to the Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince Ringuet), and after deflowering his bride semi-publicly Montpensier is off to the wars again, leaving her in the care of the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson).

Chabannes gave up the business of war after killing a pregnant woman at close range and tutors Marie in languages and science, teaching her not only to read but also, at her insistence, to write. She also accompanies him on forays into the woods to gather healing herbs and on nighttime stargazing missions, and before you know it he's also in love with her. This love quadrangle becomes a pentagon with the addition of the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) but Marie remains her own woman, as much as that is possible given her circumstances.

Tavernier builds up a complex picture of social relations in 1560s France with a large cast and great attention to the details of costumes and other period elements. Trust me, you wouldn't want to eat with these guys, and there's absolutely nothing glamorous about the violent scenes of warfare that regularly punctuate the film. I have to confess I wasn't always sure what the exact relationships were between some of the characters, but it's not really a problem because, as in Winter's Bone, nearly everyone in a given social strata seems to be family by blood or marriage anyway.

More importantly, the name of the game is playing your assigned role; Chabannes hits it on the nose when he compares a well-run society to the orbits of the planets in which the movements of the weaker are controlled by the stronger. Besides, the important characters are thoughtfully differentiated by physical appearance so if you're not good with names you can always think of Marie's suitors as long hair (the Duc de Guise), short hair (the Prince de Montpensier), gray hair (the Comte de Chabannes), and earring (the Duc d'Anjou).

For all the emphasis on period recreation, the emotions of the characters seem quite modern. Maybe this is not so surprising after all, because finding your place in a world not of your making remains one of the basic tasks of growing up. Anyway Tavernier never suggests that people in the 1560s were any less individual or passionate than people are today and there's no false stateliness in their speech or movement.

The Princess of Montpensier is like a formal banquet that requires you to slow down and savor the experience—all 139 minutes of it. It was shot by Bruno de Keyzer on location in France with several historic castles playing featured roles, so you get a nice little travelogue as well as an involving, surprisingly modern drama. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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