I know that I have read Madame de Lafayette’s short novel The Princess of Cleves twice, yet have no memory of what occurs in it. I did not read her even shorter 1662 novella “The Princess of Montpensier” until after watching the 2011 film adaptation by Bertrand Tavernier (whose “Let Joy Reign Supreme” was my previous encounter with one of his movies set before the 20thcentury). Although I have been to the chateau of Blois where Henri de Guise and his cardinal brother were murdered on the orders of Valois King Henri III and to the chateau of the king’s mother, Catherine de Médici, my sense of late-16th-century French history is rudimentary and I did not know that the Duc de Montpensier, a Prince of the Blood, was one of the cruelest of the Protestant exterminators during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre pressed by the Medici Queen Mother on a son who did not like hunting or warmaking and was regarded by some both at the time and later as sexually involved with his courtiers (mignons).
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Mentioning those events, with which French viewers presumably are as familiar as Americans are with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford Theater, is not plot-spoiling, since the Duke of Anjou in the movie is not yet king of Poland/Lithuania or France. He is being tutored in Poland and as unenthusiastic at the prospect of going to Poland as he is at wedding Elizabeth I of England. Though the most foppish character in the movie, no mignons appear and he is the fourth of the leading characters to fall for Marie, the title character.
Earlier she was engaged to Mayenne, the Duc de Maine, the younger brother of Henri, Duc de Guice, the love of her life (so headed for trouble being in love with the man who would become her brother-in-law). Her father instead marries her off to the Prince Montpensier to obtain some land he wants, at a time when the Guices have lost favor with the Queen Mother, Catherine de Médici. As Marie’s friend Catherine, who is about to become her mother-in-law, says, noble women are bred like dogs and horses without any say in the matter.
Love had nothing to do with selecting mates and was not expected to follow. The noblemen were off fighting most of the time. Concern about bloodlines/paternity were expectable, but after deflowering his bride in front of an audience from both families, he falls in love with his brood-mare (wife). At least it seems that his feelings go beyond possessiveness and jealousy.
Almost immediately after the wedding night, he is called by the Duc d’Anjou to return to warring against the Hugenots (Protestants) and leaves her in the countryside (the estate at Champigny) with his old tutor François, the Comte de Chabannes (who had gone over to the Hugenot side and then deserted, sickened by having slain a child and a pregnant woman at the start of the movie). He teaches her to write (to Henri de Guise is the fear of her husband when he returns and finds out, though she has not and does not). Although the comte was “not master of his heart, he was master of his actions” and did not try to seduce the young woman who enchanted him. The comte attempts to counsel both husband and wife (both of whom he knows far better than they know each other) in ways that will enhance their love for each other, and both trust him completely.
Her former fiancé disappears from the movie, but she intrigues the Duc d’Anjou, who arranges for her to come to court (in the Louvre) and be presented to his mother, an ardent believer in astrology who is opposed to the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to Henri de Guice, since both are Leos.
The Prince de Montpensier is outraged at the liberties Henri de Guice takes with Marie in public. In addition to indulging his own attraction for her, the Duc d’Anjou does not want two of his main military leaders fighting. The Comte de Chabannes is also hopelessly in love with his princess pupil. What the comte does strains my ability to suspend disbelief (discussing this really would count as plot-spoiling).
Tavernier improves upon the ending Mme. De Lafayette supplied. It might not be obvious to non-French viewers that shortly before the end he is showing the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. There is some overlap in time and character with “La reine Margot,” which impressed Tavernier by its naturalness (that is, avoiding the stiffness of many historical dramas). There are also scenes clearly modeled on American westerns (the conversations on horseback, and the melancholy past of the Comte de Chabannes, who is very nearly hanged early on before the Prince de Montpensier happens on the scene).
I did not get bored during the 139 minutes, and the last part seemed to me a bit rushed rather than too slow. I remain more impressed by “La reine Margot,” perhaps because I find it a bit difficult to believe that so many men find Marie irresistible. Mélanie Thierry reminds me of Scarlett Johanssen, not only in her blubbery (botoxed?) lips but in that I find Johanssen;s irresistibility in various parts hard to credit.
Those who are enchanted by her are more effective in scenes with each other than they are in scenes with her, with the partial exception of Lambert Wilson (Not on the Lips) as the Comte de Chabannes. A bonus feature shows that Raphaël Personnaz (Blame It on Fidel!) is more handsome than he appears as the Duc d'Anjou (with heavy markeup). Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) is entirely convincing as the arrogant rake, Henri de Guise, and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet (Love Songs) has the right mix of diffidence and wounded pride as Philippe de Montpensier.
Production values are high and the music by Philippe Sarde (Tess) does not distract from the story. Bruno de Keyzer is Tavernier’s usual cinematographer and attuned to what Tavernier wants. In this case, that involved some brutal close-combat scenes.
I’ve heard Taverier being interviewed live in English and found him surprisingly inarticulate (at least not finishing one sentence before starting another) in a five-minute bonus feature interview. Mélanie Thierry Raphaël Personnaz and provided more insight in a 20-minute tv interview. The essential bonus feature (which I would recommend watching before the movie to anyone not familiar with the social history and structure of France in the 1560s) is a ten-minute discussion by historian Didier le Fur. He stresses that the average age of brides at the time was twelve with grooms 14-16 and life expectancies were 35 (for women) to 40 (for men) and that inspection of the naked bride and of the wedding deflorations were more invasive even than what is in the movie! He also talked about the difficulty of recognizing who was on which side (the markers were armbands that tended to get dirty, bloody, or detached during combat).
©2012, Stephen O. Murray