A princess reality check: Romance and heartbreak in ‘The Princess of Montpensier’

This unrated movie is for mature audiences and that won’t help you fight the Disney demons if Cinderella and other Disney princesses have eaten your daughter, but “The Princess of Montpensier” is a gorgeously realized, sumptuous period movie with a modern feel that doesn’t seem anachronistic.  There is love, lust, questions of religious piety and individual belief and integrity along with beautiful scenery and cinematography.

This movie opened up at the Laemmle Royal last week and this week opened today at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

This is a mature film with violence and full frontal nudity, but they are all part of the sweep of romance and the tragic warfare of the times. The battle scenes are sweaty and dirty rather than heroic. There is a duel between an outraged husband and a ruthless lover.

The sex scenes contrast the passion of illicit love and the transaction between two chess playing fathers waiting for the confirmation of the bride’s virginity.  All aptly illustrate love and honor amidst aristocratic intrigue.

The year is 1562 and the Wars of Religion are raging; it’s the Catholics against the Huguenots (Protestants). In the aristocracy that was the House of Bourbon against the House of Guise (Lorraine).  There was some meddling from outside of France from Scotland (James VI) and Spain (Philip of Spain) and, of course, the Pope (Sixtus V) was involved. Beginning in March of 1562, the wars raged until April of 1598. Territories were declared permanently Catholic (including Paris) while the Huguenots also gained substantial rights.

King James VI of Scotland was also James I of England and the son of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots and the successor of Elizabeth I who died without issue. He was the last Tudor monarch.

So we’re talking about a time when Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was still on the throne and when Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) was still alive and being a queen or a princess was dangerous and sometimes deadly.

At the start, there is no court and no princess. An older man, Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson)  is having a bad day on the battlefield, during which he kills innocents, and, disgusted, flees the battlefield. This leaves the Comte a man without a support from either side, a traitor to both although he ironically seems more religious than either.

In his disgrace Chabannes returns to the home of an old friend, a man he tutored who is not subject to political intrigues and dishonesty: the Duc de Montpensier. Montpensier is not yet married nor even engaged.

The titular princess, begins the movie as Marie de Mézieres , the heiress of a great fortune and engaged to the brother of her true love, Henri Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel).  Henri  de Guise does not take great pains to disguise his desire for Marie. Is this the nature of true love or the lack of respect brought by a selfish lustful man?

For political reasons, her father breaks her engagement and marries her to the dutiful Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Although at first distraught, Marie attempts to forget Guise and honor her husband. They have moments of shy affection, but because of the war, he soon leaves her in the care of his old tutor and friend Chabannes.  A pensive scholar, Chabannes teaches his willing pupil about philosophy and something about her husband.

Guise, however, has not forgotten about Marie and while his brother didn’t feel his honor tarnished by his brother’s actions, Montpensier is not so obliging. When Guise suddenly appears with Duc D’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) at the fortress where Marie and her husband have been re-united jealousies flair. Later, when Marie and her husband are called to court, Marie is the object of admiration of Anjou and Guise. Her husband becomes frustrated and Guise seems to take pleasure in goading him.

Will Marie find true love or will she learn too late what true love is?

“La Princesse de Montpensier” was published in 1662 and was a thinly veiled re-telling of the love of Henrietta of England (wife of King Louis XIV’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Orleans) and the Comte de Guiche, Armand de Gramont. Henrietta was the youngest daughter of King Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria of France.

Armand was considered a playboy and bisexual as well. You can see that the princess of Montpensier is not destined for a happy ending.

Director Bertrand Tavernier gives Marie the feelings modern men and women can relate to. As played by Melanie Thierry, she is not manipulative. She is a woman who wants to be a good wife, but longs for love and feels that she knows who is her true love. Her desire–both love and lust, contradicts her duty in a world that has no place for women’s intelligence. Marie is an intelligent woman who happens to be beautiful. Yet her ideas, her wishes and her opinions aren’t valued by her father nor some of the men that love her.

Tavernier doesn’t make this a war between sexes so much as a war between expectations. Marie isn’t the only character forced to choose between love and duty. Montpensier, Chabanne, Guise and Anjou all must make those choices as well.

Tavernier also has made the decision to portray Anjou as less precious and effeminate as has been customary. Here he is more a reserved master of conversation and the political games. This is the man who would become King Henri III, but is often characterized as a little swishy because of his modern habits of washing and using a fork at the dinner table.

Anjou thus becomes a man who can also be attracted to Marie. His love is declared in subtle words and nuanced glances. Tavernier shows us different aspects of love through the men: Montpensier as virtuous love, Anjou as intellectual love, Guise as bestial love and Chabanne as selfless love.

The two characters who hold true to their hearts are not the ones who will end up happy and politically well-placed at the end of this romance.

However, the reality is there weren’t very many happy endings in France or even Europe at that time. Henri of Guise, prince of Joinville, Duke of Guise and Count of Eu, sometimes called Le Balafré (the scarred) was a real person who lived from 1550-1588. He was a champion of the Catholic faction. Henri I, Duc of Guise would be murdered  in 1588, presumably by King Henri III’s followers.

Henri III was a possible suitor for Elizabeth I of England in 1570, but this seemed only a British trick to make Spain nervous. Henri III was Catholic and Elizabeth was the head of the Church of England. Henri infamously called Elizabeth a “public whore” and commented about their difference in age (Henri was 19 and Elizabeth was 37). Henri III would be assassinated in 1589 by a religious fanatic.  He would be succeeded by Henri of Navarre, a Huguenot.

Henri IV (of Navarre) would also be assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610. Previously in 1593 and 1594, he has survived two assassination attempts.

During a time when life could be brief and brutal, sure that should make love matter more? Or does it make survival more important?

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7

673 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA – (626) 844-6500

The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier)

‎2hr 19min‎‎ – Romance/Drama‎ -

1:40  4:50  8:00pm
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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anne
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 14:42:07

    Thank you for your critic. Just to add that Tavernier’s view on the future Henri III is very clever and so much closer to the truth than all the (senseless) representations Henri III has been suffering from in previous movies… Here he’s refined, clever, witty, with a great culture and sense of duty. I am no fan of the movie, but I can only thank Tavernier for showing Henri III this so close to the truth way!

    Reply

    • Jana J. Monji
      Apr 26, 2011 @ 20:54:38

      One of the reasons I wanted to include something about the history in my review was because Tavernier made a point of mentioning that and I think we should always remember that who writes history has a lot to do with how people and their actions are interpreted. I also found it amusing because one reason people found Henri III effeminate was because he used eating utensils. I had read an account of how Japanese found the first Europeans in Japan curious and even crude because they ate with their hands.

      Thanks for sharing your comments!

      Reply

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