Set in 1562, The Princess of Montpensier promises to be a ‘bodice-ripper’ right from the start. In a world where marriage is less about love and more about gaining family advantage, this French historical epic delivers all the passion, heartache and politics that is inevitable from a story set in this era.
The Princess of Montpensier is based on the classic French novel of the same name, written by Madame de Lafayette in 1662. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, the film is set during during the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestants in the late 16th Century. Among all the fighting and bloodshed, Marie de Mézières’ father still finds time to marry her off to the Prince of Montpensier against her will. Melanie Thierry (Babylon A.D.) plays Marie, a beautiful girl who does a very good job of being attractive to men who are not her husband. Whether this is intentional or not is uncertain, although it is hard to believe she is really that naive.
Of course, there is the ruggedly-handsome man from her childhood whose lust Marie cannot forget. Duc de Guise, played by Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), brings a sufficient amount of brooding good-looks and dangerous passion into play that Marie’s resolve is severely tested. When the Duc is not swaggering around, he is fighting fiercely, a habit which has earned him the nick-name Le Balafré, or “Scarface”. It is easy to understand why Marie lusts after him, but the question is, is he worth it?
A violent, passionate rivalry develops between Guise and Duc d’Anjou, played by Raphael Personnaz (Blame It On Fidel), when the latter also falls under the spell of our heroine. Anjou is destined to be the future Henri III, but that does not necessarily mean that his mojo is powerful enough to get the girl. When they are all brought together at Champigny, one of the Prince of Montpensier’s most secluded castles, tensions threaten to get out of hand. Jealousy is rife around the castle walls and there are many undercurrents of lust and broken promises.
It seems that no one in this film is immune to Marie’s charms. Her tutor, Françoise cont de Chabannes develops what seems to be the most genuine love for our heroine, and also the most tragic. Played by Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men), he is the voice of reason, turning his back on the brutality of fighting and murder. He is described as “a man of feelings” and is the most grounded character. It is his perceptiveness and subtlety that sets him apart from everyone else and he eventually emerges as the prophetic hero of the story.
While The Princess of Montpensier is an historical film, it is not lost in the obscurity of the past. Underneath the luxurious costumes and social etiquette, there are issues being addressed that are still relevant now. Marie’s desire to break away from social conformity and follow her heart puts a modern spin on the old issue of forced marriages, or at least family pressures on young people. The ultimate question remains however, of whether this kind of sacrifice can ever be worth it, especially when the stakes are as high as they are in this film.
You can buy The Princess of Montpensier at Amazon.co.uk on Blu-ray
and DVD from 31st October 2011. Extras include a 60 min Making Of directed by Pierre-Henry Gilbert and a UK exclusive interview with Bertrand Tavernier.