The princess and the pauper
Our local cinema, a Niçois institution, packs ’em in by the usual means beloved of all
confirmed cheapskates impoverished persons. Yup, the Day of Discount which adds up – or, rather, down – to a lovely, comfy armchair-type seat in a small, air-conditioned/heated salle to watch undubbed art films for no more than a fiver: who could ask for more?
I could. But I shouldn’t; so I don’t. Much … Because I go to the flicks once in a blue moon (see first sentence of first para), it has Got to Be Worth It. And I should perhaps own up to watching almost anything featuring horses, yaks, muskoxen or bison – whether on telly, now I have access to Arte (hoorayhoorayhooray, oh joy: aforementioned quadrupeds appear thereon with reasonable regularity), or at le cinoche.
So it was that I made my way on a Monday (designated D-day) to my local fleapit (Christ, I hope not …). And there I was transfixed by La Princesse de Montpensier. Aside from the fact that this is
Bertrand Tavernier’s latest offering – and his films are always worth seeing – the film is set in 16th century France during the Wars of Religion, which naturally means everybody charges about on … you guessed.
The horses were fabulous. Oh, the film? The story? The acting? The sets/settings and costumes? They were very good, too. Oh, all right: very, very good. The tale is based on a novella by 17th century author, Madame de Lafayette, and tells of a young girl and the four men bound to her by various permutations of love, desire, marriage and sheer zest for intrigue. The girl is Marie de Mézières, beautifully played by Mélanie Thierry. Marie is barely into her teens at the start, but she knows her own mind – or, rather, her heart – despite continuing to evoke the storms and stupidities of adolescence almost until the end when her wilful independence hardens before our eyes into grim acceptance and her face, hitherto minutely expressive, becomes impassive, hinting at the frozen emotional state that may be hers from now on.
At the beginning Marie is helpless in the hands of her father, who doesn’t hesitate to beat her for defying his wish that she marry Philippe, Prince de Montpensier. This scene and the immediately following ones show Marie’s nascent sexuality suborned to her value as a political pawn. Her defeated, dead-eyed mother, accepting her oafish husband’s right to take his fists to their daughter, contents herself with intoning the mantra of the unwilling aristocratic bride: an heir and, if possible, a spare duly dropped, the wee wifie may do as she pleases sexually-speaking (love, it is understood, being out of the question).
But Marie loves the heir to the de Guise dukedom, and it is her particular fate and sorrow that she does. Does he love her? Well, I don’t think so. But I leave that up to you. And there are others involved, illustrating the gradations of dependence – willing or otherwise – dictated by emotional attachment. All of these form the swirling emotional currents that, despite her brave, lonely attempts to resist them, drag the princess this way then that constantly, leaving her no peace.
War is another near-constant. As might be expected, there is much swashing and buckling – all taking place in ravishing scenery (notably the Cantal) and lavish architectural settings (featuring Angers and the Château de Blois). Outdoor action was shot on the move and on the same level, which gives these scenes an exhilarating immediacy.
The script is excellent. As far as I am capable of judging, it trod the fine lines between flowery period prose and accessible psychology and between historical veracity and a dramatic plot with skill and daring. Certainly, the actors were not only comfortable with the scenario but also manifestly relished it. There are quite a few laughs – usually of the grim variety, but definite comedic remarks or responses all the same – which provide relief from the relentless pace of the drama.
The four men attached to Marie are perfectly cast: Gaspard Ulliel as the glamorous, fascinating, dangerously unpredictable de Guise. Raphaël Personnaz as the sleek, sophisticated Valois prince du sang, le Duc d’Anjou, whose reptilian world-weariness lurks behind a thin veneer of poise, charm and soft-spoken eloquence. Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet succeeds in making the rather thankless part of the Prince de Montpensier both sympathetic and credible: an intelligent, unimaginative but honest and kind young man forced by circumstance into baffled victimhood, he doggedly battles against it in every way he has been bred to espouse. And Lambert Wilson is the penurious Protestant Comte de Chabannes hired by the Prince – a grateful former student who has saved Chabannes’ life – as tutor to the Princess. A wonderful actor, Wilson quietly but vividly inhabits the rôle of a landless aristo, a Huguenot outsider sickened by violence, who becomes Marie’s tutor, friend and the only character in the story who genuinely loves the poor child. Without a hint of sentimentality Wilson portrays an essentially decent, modest man who loses his heart in late middle-age to someone he knows cannot return his devotion. In effect, Chabannes is a mirror image of Marie’s misguided but impressive commitment to love. When forced to choose between the two, Chabannes acts according to his love for Marie rather than his loyalty to her husband – to whom he owes life and livelihood.
Otherwise, while displaying moments of impatience or anger Chabanne’s integrity is always present, anchoring him to duty and responsibility. It’s an extraordinary performance, its subtlety thrown into sharp relief by the surrounding group of talented and handsome young actors relishing their rôles as gilded youth. With the exception of Anjou the schemer, the young men opt for action if not downright aggression, whereas the older man’s reflections on what he is doing, why and how, are made tacitly clear to us. Chabanne’s generosity and humanity save his life, although ultimately they seal his fate: he abhors violence, but finally recognises it may be the only conceivable response to a worse evil. We watch him make the decision, sense the gravity of his foreboding – and know he has no other choice.
It is extraordinarly difficult to depict goodness on stage or screen – or even on the page – without it appearing sanctimonious and thus degenerating into inauthenticity, leaving an audience not only unconvinced but also disengaged. Lambert Wilson, with the help of director and script, deftly avoids these pitfalls.
He gets the best horses, too, because he’s a pretty competent horseman (and has consequently risen even higher in my estimation). Doubtless you’ll also be thoroughly relieved to learn that no yaks or muskoxen were harmed in the making of this film. Because there weren’t any in it, alas – not even Tavernier & Team can produce the perfect film, however much visual, dramatic and moral power they can conjure.
Do go and see this film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Pix sourced from Commons Wiki.
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