DVD The Princess Of Montpensier
The Princess Of Montpensier was originally an anonymously written novella from 1662, and its film adaptation took only nine weeks to shoot on location in Angers and the Cantal region of France. While period dramas have become a dime a dozen, The Princess Of Montpensier’s sumptuous and historically inaccurate yet inventive costuming makes it visually stand out from the crowd, but questions arise in its direction and uneven casting.
Against the savage background of France’s 1562 Protestant/Catholic wars, the story centres on the love between beautiful aristocrat Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry) and her soldier cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). For political reasons, Marie’s father marries her to the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and the lovers are unceremoniously parted when Marie is taken to Montpensier’s home on the other side of the country.
When Montpensier is called away to battle, he leaves Marie in the care of his ex-tutor and ageing veteran Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). The two form a friendship, and Chabannes struggles to ignore the desire he feels for her. Upon Montpensier’s homecoming, Chabannes, Marie and her husband are called to Paris, where Marie is embroiled within the sexual and political intrigues of court, as well as the return of Henri…
Unusually, director Bertrand Tavernier wasn’t attached to the production of this film until a second version of the script was released – a script that was not entirely faithful to its original novella. The film suffers from such an uneasy birth, as the pacing and scene logic is scattered, whilst the story makes enormous leaps in plot, appearing contrived and convenient. The story of Marie and Henri is thrust out of the limelight before it ever takes hold, and Chabannes’ entire presence is forced. There seems to be little character development and the motives of almost every person in the story are unclear and unrealistic. Add to this the general confusion of how slowly or quickly time is passing, and the underlying love story goes by unnoticed.
The casting involved in this film is possibly the most bewildering element of its failure.
The casting involved in this film is possibly the most bewildering element of its failure. Wilson has appeared in a number of successful films, and his reprisal as The Merovingian in The Matrix series had fans enraptured, but he is completely wasted in The Princess Of Montpensier. His dialogue is far more poetic than his surrounding actors’, creating an uneven mood in almost every scene he’s in, and while he performs the role well, his heart is definitely not in it. Thierry has an interesting if hit and miss acting past, but, in this film, she relies on a series of pained expressions and some very unnecessary nude scenes to get the audience through to the end. Her portrayal of a woman in hopeless love is so insincere it would be a forgivable offence to believe that the love story was all smoke and mirrors.
One of the best things about period dramas, particularly those set in war torn Europe, are the fight scenes that are almost always involved at some point of the film. The Princess Of Montpensier doesn’t disappoint, as the opening scene is the massacre of a small village. Unfortunately, the physical choreography is incredibly poor. Actors react before being struck, are awkward with the swords and guns, and appear completely untrained in basic fight movements. Each physical altercation throughout the film suffers from these same problems, and even the technical elements are disappointing; swords striking sound like brass or tin and the sets echo like they’ve been made of ply wood. All in all, these effects cheapen the film to such an extent that it looks like a television series rather than a piece of cinema.
One area where The Princess Of Montpensier impresses is its costuming. All items were made in Italy and England, and the designers were adamant that they have no bearing on actual 16th century ceremonial clothing. These casual appearances have the nice effect of updating the material in a way few other period dramas allow. Furthermore, the choices in lighting were inspired by the film noir genre, as Tavernier wanted to create an atmosphere of emotional tension without simply imitating French paintings or pictorial reconstruction. These combine to make a lovely looking film – it just lacks the muscle behind it.
It’s a shame that Tavernier’s film came out so poorly. All the elements are there – a violent historical backdrop, separated lovers and political intrigue. What’s lacking is a sense of unity between these things. The story is so hastily told that basic questions go unanswered, and the entire love plotline is portrayed like a teen movie jammed into the middle of a war. The emotions are flamboyant and unbalanced, the battle scenes are incompetent and badly constructed, and Thierry’s performance is underwhelming. At least the actors look good while stumbling through this messy attempt at historical drama.
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