Big, costumed, historical dramas are not exactly in large supply these days, so "The Princess of Montpensier," which harks back to an earlier era in more ways than one, is welcome – at least in theory.
Set in the 16th century, Bertrand Tavernier's film about the ongoing battle between Roman Catholics and Protestant Huguenots is the kind of movie they don't often make anymore, neither in Hollywood nor overseas. The historical genre belongs now almost entirely to the TV mini-series, where the Borgias and the Tudors cavort mightily and fresh heads are always on the chopping block.
Courtly intrigue should be intriguing, and in that sense, "The Princess of Montpensier" – although it's somewhat wan and too cerebral for its own good – does a fairly keen job. Adapted from Madame de La Fayette's 1662 novella, one of the earliest psychological examinations in prose of regal power, and coscripted by Tavernier, Jean Cosmos, and François-Olivier Rousseau, "The Princess of Montpensier" opens in 1567 with that old standby, a royal arranged marriage.
The Marquis de Mézières (Phillippe Magnan) strikes an advantageous connection with the Duc de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) to marry his beautiful, doe-eyed daughter Marie (Mélanie Thierry) to the marquis's stalwart son, Prince Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), whom she barely knows. Although she lusts for her swashbuckling cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), she submits to her father's edict, settling into the prince's rural castle in Mont-sur-Brac and whiling away the uneventful hours.
Marie has the dubious distinction of making just about every man she meets go gaga at the sight of her, starting with her tutor, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), once a mentor to her husband in the ways of war but now, chastened, a pacifist who spends long afternoons teaching her to read and write and track the stars.
Thierry, with her prim carnality, resembles what a young Brigitte Bardot might have looked like before the invention of the bikini. It makes sense that not only Philippe and the comte but also the perpetually hovering Henri would go a bit batty around her.
Although Tavernier doesn't play up the comedic aspects of this love triangle, it's nevertheless fairly amusing that so much of the fighting in this movie is really about Marie and not, say, territory, religion, or spoils. Marie is rather oblivious to her charms, which, of course, makes her all the more tantalizing to these men.
Tavernier, who likes to film in long tracking shots even in tight, enclosed spaces, is adept at staging both battle scenes and courtly shenanigans, and he wisely keeps this period film within its own antiquated confines. He doesn't try to "modernize" the proceedings (as, say, Ridley Scott did in his dim, disastrous "Robin Hood"). But the downside to his approach is a certain bloodlessness (in more ways than one). All too often we seem to be observing the pageant rather than sinking into it.
This matter-of-factness has its occasional advantages, such as the wedding night scene between Philippe and Marie, with their marriage consummated in a curtained bed while a retinue of servants and royals stand by.
But for this story to work, Marie needs to be not only a charmer but a woman willing to throw over her luxuries for love, or at least love/lust. She needs to be a bit mad, and Thierry's performance, like the movie itself, is too sane for its own good.
There are also some crucial pieces of miscasting. Was it necessary, for example, to make Philippe such a stiff in order to bolster Marie's attraction to Henri? And casting Lambert Wilson, an actor of Liam Neeson-like charisma, as a love struck tutor, is a bit much. I am not forgetting that he played a pacifist monk in "Of Gods and Men," but in that film, unlike here, we could feel the tension between his physicality and devotionalism.
You may also wish there was more showboating in this movie, more of the old Hollywood kitsch that Tavernier for the most part scrupulously avoids. His history lesson could have done with a few more playground breaks. Grade: B (Unrated. In French, with subtitles.)