A couple of years ago I was doing a piece on Jacques Rivette that required a recognizable authority known to English-language readers who could readily articulate what makes Rivette so singular and interesting a figure.
I went with Bertrand Tavernier, the gold standard.
The director is a canny hybrid of critic, historian, documentarian and mad-movie lover whose boundless and encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history (especially classic Hollywood) is matched probably only by Martin Scorsese. (If you read French, here's his great blog). The director’s vigorously eclectic background and innate humanism make him particularly well suited to the demands and difficulties of the large scaled though deeply personal brand of epic moviemaking.
Now, the director’s most recent feature, the majestic though sorrowful and often wounding The Princess of Montpensier, is opening in the major markets and is widely available on VOD. It’s been getting terrific reviews, which is very satisfying because it was one of my favorite films in the competition at Cannes last year.
It opens with a frighteningly realistic skirmish between a warrior and peasant woman that starkly illustrates the terrible human toil of the battle and the great injuries and casualties suffered by noncombatants, especially those of women and children. Here the director’s acute and probing intelligence makes vivid his masterly though daunting ability to draw on image, emotion and feeling to excavate the past without embalming it.
Tavernier’s story of love, death and personal allegiance set against the religiously-inflected civil war that crippled France during the 16th century, The Princess of Montpensier is distinguished by muscular and sensual set pieces, elegantly and sustained camerawork and the pirouetting romantic coupling and uncoupling of the title figure.
Tavernier has made some exacting and highly intelligent historical pieces, from the harsh and beautifully severe medieval drama Beatrice, featuring an astonishing turn by a very young Julie Delpy to World War I period dramas Life and Nothing Else and Captain Conan.
As a referent the country’s War of Religions (1562-98) correspond to the life and work of Shakespeare. Cinematically, this tumultuous social, political and religious historical period has been covered before, from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance to Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot. Tavernier is smart and judicious enough to give the material his own reading and perspective.
Tavernier wrote the script with frequent collaborators Jean Cosmos and Francois-Olivier Rousseau, adapted from the short novel by Madame de La Fayette. The beautiful and much coveted Marie de Mézières (Melanie Thierry), heiress to a great fortune, loves the skilled and virtuous warrior Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). To fortify his own standing, her father (Philippe Magnan) rescinds the previous agreement of betrothal between the young cousins in favor of a more political advantageous position with the prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).
Headstrong and somewhat dismissive of the restrictive social customs Marie balks at the arrangement though eventually she concedes to her father’s demands. The historical detail of the movie is often riveting, like the almost ritual viewing of the couple’s consummation, viewed by parties of both families that sanctifies the new arrangement.
Marie’s own stance softens and she displays a much more obedient and obliging nature with the prince, notifying him she has vanquished any existing emotional attachment to her cousin. Her education remains a work in progress. After the prince is ordered to direct a military campaign against forces loyal to the Huguenot (Protestant) cause, he dispatches his wife to the baronial and secluded castle of Champigny to gather the necessary education to enter court.
Her tutor and overseer, Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), is the prince’s mentor who was banished by the king for renouncing war (and who must also deal with constant suspicions of being a Huguenot sympathizer).
A warrior and scholar, Chabannes finds himself also drawn to the piercing beauty and hungry, exacting intelligence of the young woman. Tavernier brilliantly intertwines the personal against the political. He moves sharply between spheres, the isolated and intimate moments of the woman's tutoring to the vainglory of the battlefield. Tavernier eclipses the frightening, raw power of the opening with disarmingly intense, grubby and primal battle sequence.
Outlined against a charcoal gray sky, opposing armies drawn against each other, Tavernier stages the war as bloody, violent and all-encompassing. He allows no room for surrender or release. Known as Le balafre, or “Scarface,” because of the markings that slashed his face, Guise is ferocious soldier who is especially skilled at hand to hand combat. The prince is also a talented and dedicated swordsman who distinguishes himself with his valor and duty.
The war comes home with a vengeance and the shifting rules and nature of the battlefield now encroaches on the property where Marie is isolated. At the estate the dramatic triangle that opened the film involving Guise and the prince is now complicated by a rival and potentially duplicitous romantic party, Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), the future king.
The reappearance of Guise only aggravates Marie’s fragile and uncertain emotional condition. Tavernier superbly pirouettes between the warring parties, treating it as a kind of elaborate roundelay of backstage maneuvering and covert manipulation. Guise refuses to believe her claim of sudden indifference and intends to uncover the nature of her true feelings, as the prince also fights off his own lingering suspicions about his wife’s fidelity and love.
In order for the drama to work, Marie must hold the film’s center. The ravishing Thierry is more than convincing. She possesses not only the physical requirements the role entails, but she conveys a considerable intelligence, guile and cunning that powerfully suggests she is a great deal more than just an object of desire.
Chabannes is her mirror opposite, the brave and talented warrior and scholar who also is the first to object to the barbarity of the particular war and fight against the encroaching hysteria and mounting fear and dread. Wilson brings the necessary sorrow and grace to the part.
Tavernier has perhaps seen it all, but he’s not a manqué. He does not simply play off received or already dramatized ideas and actions. The Princess of Montpensier achieves what all movies aspire toward. It lives and breathes in the imagination.