Revisiting the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier tones down the sexy intrigue in favour of female self-determination.
Woman In Loveby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
While Madame de La Fayette retains a coveted place in France’s literary canon, she has never really been fashionable among filmmakers. Apart from Christophe Honoré’s recent high school retelling of La Princesses de Clèves in La Belle Personne, her female-centred if not exactly feminist tales of duty bound marriage, doomed passion and bitter self-denial have never quite provided the sexy period romp desired. Unlike the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which found a place in DW Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation and was most recently committed to celluloid by Patrice Chéreau in La Reine Margot, whose events find an echo in The Princess of Montpensier, with its foppish prince D’Anjou, the dashing Duc de Guise and swashbuckling Parisian street fights.
In fact, there’s something very Nineties about La Princesse de Montpensier, its policier style round-ups a la L.627 and rather limp post-Bourne sword fights, its clumsy staged business, electric luminations and modern haircuts. The ghost of Queen Margot haunts the film, pale by comparison. Gone the sexual intrigue, the rampant debauchery, the political context of war in the Balkans, or even the crafted sense of a historical reality Chéreau brought to the screen. By comparison, Bertrand Tavernier’s film, while indebted in its costumes and war scenes, feels pedestrian, lacking the vivacious gusto to update Madame de La Fayette’s novel into something more meaningful in the present.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. While Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet perhaps leans too far into dull, jealous, cuckolded unlikability – surely we’re not supposed to wish our heroine into the arms and natty pantaloons of De Guise from the first reel – scenes with Lambert Wilson, Mélanie Thierry, Gaspard Ulliel and Raphaël Personnaz truly sparkle. And never have I found myself wishing so hard for a cameo appearance by Jeanne Moreau as crazed matriarch Catherine de Medici. It could have been a great performance, at least to rival the great Virna Lisi.
And despite some tender scenes between the princess and her impromptu tutor Chabannes, the septuagenarian craftsman’s film doesn’t really catch light until the action moves to the Parisian court. There are some interesting asides on wifely vassalage as Marie stands in a doorway betwixt two groups of men deciding her fate, her mother’s sibilant pleas to submit to her most unholy matrimony, or her turning point of self-realisation as she accepts her punishment with womanly defiance and rides home, yes side-saddle, without her husband’s comfortable entourage and with a sweeping gallop to rival Julie in Rappeneau’s Le Hussard Sur Le Toit.
Alas, the climactic moment of passionate infidelity barely breaks a sweat, an unworthy patron to the backstairs intrigues and duplicitous machinations, lacking the transgressive momentum it really deserves. This salaciousness is quickly rescinded, as De Guise fades away, into the more richly brocaded arms of the Princesse de Clèves and the self-sacrificing Chabannes comes a cropper when he ups halberds to rescue a woman caught up in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. His posthumously read letter kindles a fire in Marie, hauling her skirts to Blois in a hopelessly futile attempt to win back the feckless, lying man she loves.
It’s a desperate oversight that de Guise’s manoeuvring marital ambitions aren’t called into question earlier, the jeopardy of her decision to leave her husband unnecessarily flat. Her subsequent renunciation of love, a self-denial comparable to Chabanne’s post-battle pacifism, is powerful, but falls short of Elizabeth‘s chilling petrification. And the film’s conclusion, her snowbound homage to Chabannes – her one true lover amid all her mothlike suitors, belies her desperate plight – no husband, no fortune, no place. Only Nicolas, Chabanne’s old manservant for company. But for The Princess of Montpensier it’s a pyrrhic coup. She’s alone in the world, but a woman at last.
The Princess Of Montpensier is released in the UK on 8th July 2011