Based on the 1662 short story by Madame de La Fayette, The Princess of Montpensier does not exhume one of the neglected greats of classic literature. Bodice ripper boilerplate, it exists as a thin backdrop for a noble, if overlong, experiment in doing something, anything, cinematically with the period piece. For about three reels, director Bertrand Tavernier tricks us into thinking he’s succeeded and designed the most formally exciting costume drama since Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais. And because the genre so rarely inspires genuine filmic invention, he likely still has.
Before getting to the titular babe (Mélanie Thierry), Montpensier introduces us first to the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). Middle aged and fiery, Tavernier’s roaming camera finds him mid-squirmish during France’s bloody tussle between Protestants and Catholics, during which he and his men inadvertently kill a man, woman and child. “No more barbarism,” he declares, and winds up in a love quadrangle with Thierry’s Marie. Betrothed to Mayenne de Guise (Césare Domboy), she loves his brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) but winds up, at the last second, marrying the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire LePrince-Ringuet). As she navigates an ensuing clusterfuck, Chabannes serves as her mentor, if not without feeling some passion of his own.
Tavernier, a cinephilic press-agent-turned-cinephilic-filmmaker, has little interest in the flimsy story itself. His passions lie in capturing the specific details of the period, and doing so without making a meal of it. A typically matter-of-fact scene finds Marie being broken in by her new spouse, all while the family watches and fathers-in-law play chess. Tavernier’s even more intrigued by what to do with his camera. Joe Wright garnered notice for the tracking shots and odd tripodless moments that spiced up his Pride & Prejudice. This 69 year old outdoes him: His camera speeds one way, then back another, then sails into the sky on a crane. From the muscular camerwork to the clipped, no-nonsense performances, this is first and foremost a tough film, one that often seems better than it actually is.