“La Princesse de Montpensier” (2010): who do you love?
18 December 2011
There is a strange distance to our view of the characters in Bertrand Tavernier’s La Princesse de Montpensier. One can’t help but be caught up in this 16th-century tale because it might well be the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen — the costumes alone took my breath away, but the visions of battle, the castles, the village exteriors, the “Arabian” costume ball, all convey true wonder and pleasure. Yet the film can’t quite persuade us to love either of the two primary characters — and as a result, one finishes the film with an odd coldness. Did I love watching this beautiful film? Absolutely. Did I care for the characters? Not especially. How is that possible, given the narrative of a strong female lead with a tale of love and jealousy and the horrors of early modern marriages?
The most likely protagonist should have been the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, above, and yes please!). Chabannes is a Huguenot (Protestant) and has chosen to fight against the Catholics during the French Wars of Religion. But almost as soon as the film opens we find him a member of a Huguenot raiding party, killing by accident a pregnant woman. Appalled by his action, he gives up the sword and swears never to fight again — to return to his life as a scholar and teacher. His former pupil, the Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), welcomes him back as a counselor and friend.
But before we get much attached to Chabannes, we meet the beautiful heiress Marie (Mélanie Thierry), who’s letting her handsomely scarred cousin, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) nuzzle her neck and feel her up a bit. It’s clear it’s been going on for a while and that they expect to marry. Yet due to a political realignment of power by their fathers, Marie gets married off instead to Montpensier, whom she’s never met before.
They break this news to her in a terrific set of scenes. Marie stands in a doorway, watching de Guise at one end of a courtyard being counseled by a relative; she turns around and watches Montpensier learn of this news and turn to look at her with his signature cautiousness. de Guise turns and marches past her to challenge, aggressively, the smaller Montpensier. Later, as her future husband listens from a hallway, her father breaks the news to her:
Father: You will yield! You must! I order you! I will host les Guises tonight. You will consent before they go, or everything will wobble. This marriage suits me — you will yield, or enter a convent.
Marie: I will go. [Her father slaps her]
Father: I’ve tamed worse than you! Les Guises leave tomorrow and you’ll forget all this! Yield! You must! I’m your father! It’s your duty to obey! [He raises a hand to punch her, but her mother intervenes.]
Mother, warning him: My friend. [Later, alone with Marie.]
Mother: Control yourself, proud child. And submit. I know you are intelligent. Youth makes you defiant. Your feelings for de Guise are too conspicuous. Control them, and let reason guide you. Think what marriage to that dreamer Mayenne would lead to, bringing you near the one who desires you, and to whom you’re drawn. Sooner or later you would both yield to temptation and no good would ensue.
Marry Montpensier. He’s an ordinary brute with no reputation yet, either good or bad. Daughter, love is the most awkward of things; I thank heaven every day your father and I have been spared such trouble. Submit.
Given the drama of such a scene, you’d think by now that Marie would be our heroine, but the film doesn’t really encourage us to go there. Her compliance with her parents’ wishes — her submission — is so complete and absolute that she becomes cold, inscrutable, and so much so that she’s unsympathetic. We almost believe her dispassionate statements about duty and obedience. She has been schooled too well by her mother: she spares herself the trouble of love for her husband, or for anyone else. For more than half the film she hardly speaks a true thought or emotion.
Now, Montpensier is a perfectly nice man — not brutish at all, and perfectly willing to obey his father’s wishes — even though he knows of Marie’s total indifference and that the marriage will destroy his friendship with his cousin de Guise. He and Marie survive the horrors of the “wedding night,” in which her virginity is confirmed by her blood on the sheets and her cry of pain, audible to the women who sit in the room during the act.
But because he knows of Marie’s prior attachment to de Guise, the Prince quickly becomes a jealous husband. Marie is so beautiful that he can’t help falling in love with his wife, and tries in vain to seek confirmation that she might grow to feel the same way. Always standing with his head slightly cowed to her, Montpensier finds himself begging for signs of her growing attachment to him. One almost thinks that perhaps he is the film’s protagonist.
Except that Montpensier quickly gets dispatched to fight in the War, leaving her home with Chabannes to be educated in music, poetry, science, and all the fine arts that will make her an ornament at the court of Versailles eventually, a jewel for her husband to show off. She proves an eager student, working long hours to learn to write as well as understand the great poets. Soon Chabannes falls in love with her too.
But why?? We haven’t really grown to like her very much and, although we can see both her beauty and that she has funneled her desires into a quest for knowledge (always worthy!), she still seems cold and emotionless. When the drool-worthy Chabannes pronounces his love, I simply thought, “Really?” C’mon Tavernier, you can do better.
And so we proceed as the film unfolds a soap opera-worthy tale of various men throwing themselves at Marie. Don’t get me wrong: the beauty of the film, the clothes, and the characters make this eminently watchable. Yet by the time the curtain closes, one has the feeling that we’ll forget everything that happened to the characters, that there is no hero, no moral, and no underlying message. We have not grown to despise with all our heart the early modern practice of using women as sexual pawns in men’s power struggles. We do not denounce a vain woman’s stubborn wish to act on her sexual desires despite her lack of power to do so freely.
We mostly feel sad that she was born beautiful, because it makes men fight over her; we wish she had been ordinary-looking and modest. And we wish Tavernier had had a clearer plan with this film rather than to just make it look so good. (And yet I can guarantee that if Marie’s teal-colored dress ever comes up for sale, I am whipping out whatever one of my credit cards has a really high credit limit.) Reasons to watch this film: 1) Lambert Wilson (mmmm), and 2) great visuals. Otherwise: I’m left strangely unmoved. I should have fallen in love with someone in this film; I’m left feeling meh. Sigh.