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.

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Now, friends of Feminéma will know she’s no fan of marriage.  Long story, but I maintain that no one who’s ever considered the history of the institution and the way it squashed women’s rights for so long can feel otherwise.  And after watching the Granada/ ITV series “The Forsyte Saga” I feel not only confirmed in my prejudices, but as if I’ve been handed a visual record of evidence to support them.  As much as I maintain a ridiculous weakness for 19th-century courtship melodramas and romances of all kinds (I’m a big fan of romance and relationships, just not marriage) this tale of 19th-c. marriage hell is utterly riveting and believable.

Irene (the beautiful Gina McKee) agrees to marry the lovestruck Soames Forsyte (both above) not because she loves him, but because she’s penniless, strongly pressured by her pragmatic stepmother, and bereft of any better offer.  She sees it from the beginning as a marriage of necessity.  Even in the late 19th century women like Irene might liken such marriages to prostitution — implicitly or explicitly — for she was most certainly in it for the comfort and respectability.  But when she finally agrees, she makes Soames promise that he will “let me go” if they cannot be happy.  He agrees, but we know he’ll never do it.

Damian Lewis does no favors for other ginger-haired Englishmen so mocked in that country (speaking of odd prejudices) in the role of Soames.  He manages to combine a despicable aristocratic coldness with a smothering possessiveness that Irene can hardly bear.  On those nights when he “exercises his duties as a husband,” to use the parlance of their time, Irene sneaks off to the bathroom afterward to douche rather than risk pregnancy.  Sex becomes so onerous that she demands they sleep in separate bedrooms — gossip about which quickly flies around the family, mortifying Soames.  Their chilly détente of a marriage might have continued indefinitely but for the appearance of Philip Bossinney, a young architect (Ioan Gruffudd, who can design my house any day), newly engaged to Soames’ winsome cousin June.  Bossinney is smitten with Irene, and she begins to melt under his gaze.  Who wouldn’t, really, given those eyes and that wide, sensuous mouth of Gruffudd’s?  As Irene falls hard for the young architect, her distaste for her husband hardens into a bitter hatred and her lifelong obedience to social rules begins to crumble.  One night at a ball, wearing a vivid, strappy red dress, she dances with Bossinney with such pleasure and such a smile on her normally placid face that everyone knows precisely what is going on.

Glimpses of the couple’s mutual attraction drive Soames to distraction.  Always given to jealousy, he now emanates a white-hot fury in most of his interactions with his wife.  And as if their interactions aren’t awful enough, one night as she sleeps he sneaks into her bedroom and rapes her as she cries out in anguish, “No!  No!  No!”  The housekeeper who hesitates at the bedroom door with a tortured expression, not knowing where her loyalties lie, ultimately stays out of the room and follows her duty — Soames, after all, is the one who pays her, even if she sympathizes with the woman.

John Galsworthy’s five-volume Forsyte Saga attacked many aspects of high society and social convention, not just marriage.  But in boiling the books down to ten 70-minute episodes, the screenwriter Stephen Mallatratt seems to have found that the problem of marriage — centering on the private horrors of Soames and Irene, but mirrored in other marriages, too — offered the tale a vivid immediacy that could serve as a metaphor for the more abstractly hypocritical qualities of 19th-century society.  Moreover, with bad marriage so prevalent, true love could offer some of the series’ characters the possibility for redemption.  Perhaps with those themes in mind, the cinematographers offer us the richest, most enjoyable close-ups of the characters’ faces as their emotions and repressions and furies wash over them, twisting their hopes and damaging their relationships.  This series teaches us that true love occurs outside of marriage; bad marriages drive families apart and make women miserable, enslaved.  (And honestly, I’m okay with that.)

My own lovely partner refuses to watch these shows with me anymore, ascribing this aspect of my Netflix queue to a particularly stereotypical girly propensity of mine.  Whatever.  I maintain that “The Forsyte Saga” is more akin to gothic horror — and it reminds me why we call ourselves “partners” rather than “spouses.”