Bertrand Tavernier has a long and distinguished career behind him, of well-crafted, intelligent films across a wide range of genres (L’horlogier de Saint-Paul, ‘Round Midnight). But he’s never been exactly a hit name, and his recent films haven’t even made it to these shores, so it was a treat to attend the AFI Fest‘s presentation of his latest, La princesse de Montpensier. An ex-critic and fan of the Hollywood studio era, part of Tavernier’s skill is that he works a little like those directors, aiming for efficient quality in any subject matter, and that perhaps engenders a certain anonymity, no doubt a contributing factor to his not being better-known. But for all that Tavernier recalls an American model, his latest piece is French through and through, a 16th-Century drama (dealing with the period just prior to that of La reine Margot) adapted from the first short story by France’s first novelist (and a woman to boot – Madame de Lafayette) and dealing with that almost-epitome of Frenchness, blind, mad passion.
The princess herself (Mélanie Thierry) is promised to one de Guise brother whilst being in love with the other, but she’s slyly whisked from under their noses into marriage with the young Prince de Montpensier. Old Montpensier has his eye on her fortune, but the rest of the men are bewitched by her beauty. As well as the impetuous, long-haired Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), young and handsome with a dashing scar, there’s her husband (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), an apparently good-hearted young man whose face does not yet fit his authority, but who strives to live up to it; a deliciously arch Duc d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) with earring, van dyke and mascara; and the Prince’s old tutor and soul-sore ex soldier the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson).
It’s Chabannes who leads the audience into the story, which involves lots of intrigue and to-ing and fro-ing of passions, but it is also he himself who typifies the problems of the film. One of those archetypal handsome older French men whose very bearing tells you he’s seen a lot of life and probably harbours some deep hurt, but who puts up with it all with nobility and integrity, he remains little more than that cliché, despite soulful work from Wilson. Likewise none of the other characters ever really springs to life, and although the film touches on issues such as the position of women as goods to be traded, the princess’s will to transgress social restraints, her burgeoning sexuality, and of course the turbulent religious climate of the time and the bitter issues of civil war in general, none of these is explored in any depth.
For a film primarily concerned with conflict between passionate desire and social (and even human) duty, it’s damagingly short on both. The passion never burns, as though the film had decided to place its costume drama register somewhere between the flamboyance of something like Le bossu and the tingling cold-fire simmer of Ne touchez pas l’hache, between exuberant use of stereotype and probing human drama. The middle ground is cripplingly unfertile, at least here. It’s a beautifully put-together film, of course, and a joy to watch the castles, countryside and courtly outfits, and for all its slight lack of humanity, the dedication of the acting can’t be faulted. I think perhaps the problem is Thierry, who simply cannot conjure the charm both physical and personal for the place she holds in the drama; she has a proud and independent will, but it is neither especially attractive nor especially spiky – in fact, she’s most appealing when she is teasing Chabannes, coquettish but a little cruel. For the rest, she’s a perhaps rather too solemn, or too self-consciously doing serious work, a charge that could be brought against the film as a whole, since it seems not even to aim for the profundity that would justify it. And honestly, Thierry’s no great beauty, which doesn’t help one in going along with the blind passions of the story. But I was told by a close female acquaintance that “any woman in the audience would want to look like her” so what do I know?