Let Virtue Be Your Guide
The first important French novel, Madame Marie de La Fayette’s 1678 The Princess of Clèves dealt with female renunciation of illicit love, was rumored to have been coauthored by her friend La Rochefoucauld, and was reprinted in more than two dozen editions in the nineteenth century alone. In contrast, the classical period novelist’s 1662 first effort, The Princess of Montpensier/La Princesse de Montpensier remains almost unknown but, following Cannes, Telluride and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, is now brought to the theatrical screen by director/cowriter Bertrand Tavernier.
Attracted by “a love story that would be both lyrical and expansive,” the filmmaker avoids pure costume, period and historical drama, to focus on a triangle-plus-one where a sheltered convent-schooled beauty is the love of three active- or ex-soldiers and the desire of a royal fourth. The adolescent girl matures to temper instinct with reason in asserting her rights as an individual. She is the fulcrum on which everything turns, and viewer reaction will depend on whether the heroine is taken as pawn, plaything, fickle or calculating, or feminist model.
Though victimized by script conveniences and clichés, a more steadfast and interesting character is one of her four male satellites, François Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who restrains present emotions and divulgence of past disappointment. The story opens and closes with him, initially involving a pregnant woman he inadvertently kills during battle and so renounces the warrior life, and another whose harassment calls him back at the end to the violence sweeping France.
La Rochefoucauld, too, had retired wounded and discouraged to the contemplative life, but for safety La Fayette set the anonymous roman à clef a century earlier, during the 1560s religious wars, adding the fictitious love story as its hub. Personalities and the internecine civil war of that period were familiar to readers, but the Catholic-Protestant/Huguenot bloodshed amidst byzantine intrigue is confusing today, even if the film does not dwell on historical intricacies.
Horrified by his error, Chabannes leaves the field and during a truce is banished as a deserter by his side and an enemy by the other. In a chance encounter, he is rescued by young Philippe Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince Ringuet), whose instructor he had been for five years. The two renew their loving respectful relationship at the same time that the prince’s ducal father (Michel Vuillermoz) is badgering the Marquis of Mézières (Philippe Magnan) into betrothing his rich heiress daughter to the prince. She, Marie (Mélanie Thierry), has been dallying with childhood friend Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), a rough hunter-soldier whose pressing for physical intimacy she sidesteps.
Humorous nuptials and wedding night celebrated immediately, the awkward and distant new husband is summoned to war by the Catholic king and sends the bride he has just met to safe haven at castle Mont-sur-Brac. Noncombatant Chabannes is to accompany the girl-barely-a-woman and to educate her for future life at court. Intelligent, with a mind of her own, she works at reading, writing and Latin, disputes poetry as against verse, learns astronomy, astrology and herbal medicine from the Renaissance-man tutor, who is soon awkwardly made to blurt out that he loves her.
In battle and in the tent of their foppish commander, the Duke d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and future King Henri III, Philippe and “Scarface” Guise are side by side and thinly cover their frenemy relationship. Ineffectively desiring his new wife’s love, respect and a smile, Philippe returns home but will be undone by his (not always unjustified) jealousy. Guiding Anjou and his entourage out of their way, Guise brings them to the moated castle, where Anjou’s lascivious remarks indicate that he, too, has an interest in the Princess of Montpensier.
Marie and Philippe finally both in Paris, the multiple permutations begin with the announcement that his now-widower father is to marry Guise’s sister Catherine (Judith Chemla), less than half his age and best friend of Marie, who, she cries and giggles, will henceforth have to address her as “Mother.”
At court, and throughout, interiors are realistically dark and dank, brown stone walls sometimes tapestry-hung, with color and costume not allowed to hog center stage. (The odors of perfume over unwashed bodies and of sewage are, despite Smell-O-Vision, Aroma-Rama and Odorama, thankfully beyond cinema.) For the viewer, Queen Catherine de Medici reads in Marie’s stars that she is pulled between wifely duty and physical desire, and Chabannes attempts to be disinterested and counsels that she be true to herself. But the three young men who seek her love or her body or her soul, force both the older tutor and the young woman into compromising situations.
Pushed this way and that by what others want, Marie acts or reacts inconsistently, often not for the best. Tavernier considers his “point of view quite feminist,” but his heroine does not completely come across in a good light. In her defense, with all fair in love and war, there is not a one-hundred-percent “right” way. As for this film, it brings nothing new to the same old story, a fight for love and glory.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)