Film Review: La Princesse de Montpensier * * *
In this country, we cherish folk memories of the sectarian barbarity dispensed by Reformist zealots such as Oliver Cromwell, but elsewhere in Europe, it was Catholics who did the slaughtering.
In late 16th-century France, a particularly nasty civil war erupted between Papists and Huguenots that lasted almost 40 years and cost innumerable lives.
In one week alone during the summer of 1572, more than 10,000 Huguenots were butchered in Paris and surrounding provincial towns. And it's against this backdrop that Bertrand Tavernier's handsome and briskly efficient epic unfolds.
War forms the backdrop, but is not the principal theme of La Princesse de Montpensier, which is based on a 17th-century short story by Madame de la Fayette. Love and the desperate hunt for it drive this narrative, and at the centre of all the passion is a beautiful young noblewoman called Marie de Mezieres (Mélanie Thierry). Marie has fallen in love with her old childhood companion, the strutting warrior the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel).
Her father, however, is politically ambitious, and when a suitor presents himself who might move the family nearer to the royal source of power, Marie is ordered to marry the Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet).
On the face of it, Montpensier is a very good catch: noble, wealthy and very well connected. But there are two hitches: first, he's a morbidly touchy and gloomy young soul with jealous tendencies; and secondly, Marie doesn't love him. Ensconced and virtually imprisoned in the prince's provincial castle, Marie finds comfort in education and friendship in the avuncular form of Montpensier's mentor the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a former Huguenot warrior.
He might seem avuncular, but Chabannes is in love with Marie, and so is practically everyone else, including the powerful Duc d'Anjou (RaphaÃ«l Personnaz).
With her marital unhappiness all too evident, the unfortunate princess becomes a pawn in an amorous game that provides brief distraction from the impending sectarian slaughter.
But it's most entertaining, and Marie's dilemma richly illustrates the unhappy lot of 16th-century women. Thierry is certainly beautiful enough to explain all the male attention: she perches like an ornament in the middle of practically every scene.
Her character, though, is a little underwritten. But perhaps it's enough that she's beautiful, because the acting around her is terrific, from Wilson's charismatic lone Hugenot to Personnaz's gleefully evil Duke.
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