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For Your Consideration: 'La Princesse de Montpensier'

Anyone who has had to take a course on 17th-century French literature (merci, Prof. Michael Koppisch!) has likely had to read Madame de Lafayette's novel La Princesse de Montpensier (and/or the perhaps more famous La Princesse de Clèves). So, it comes as quite a surprise that Bertrand Tavernier has made the first film adaptation of this ready-made grand historical epic (the script, a bit of a committee affair, is credited to Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau, and Tavernier himself). As noted last year, the film was featured in the sélection officielle at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, but it has just made its way to this side of the Atlantic last month, to generally positive American reviews. The Avalon Theater, in collaboration with La Maison Française, presented a special one-night screening of the film last Wednesday.

In some ways, Tavernier has made a grand historical epic, reminiscent of another excellent French film of that sort, La Reine Margot, which Tavernier said inspired him. The sword fights, the vistas and interiors of medieval and Renaissance châteaux, the battle sequences: all of the elements are there, with gorgeous cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer. At the same time, the drama that drives the film is personal, the disasters of love and marriage unfolding over the background of the Wars of Religion, a bloody conflict of Frenchman against Frenchman that lasted much longer than the American Civil War. The savagery of his own people inspired Michel de Montaigne, in one of his most famous Essais, to defend the practice of cannibalism among some native tribes in the New World as at least inspired only by vengeance instead of conflict of religious belief:
I am not so concerned that we should remark on the barbaric horror of such a deed, but that, while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own. I think it is more barbaric to eat a man alive than to eat him dead, to tear apart through torture and pain a living body which can still feel, or to burn it alive by bits, to let it be gnawed and chewed by dogs or pigs (as we have not only read, but seen, in recent times), not against old enemies but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and -- what is worse -- under the pretext of piety and religion. Better to roast and eat him after he is dead.
The most emblematic and tragic event of the Wars of Religion, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre -- depicted so memorably in La Reine Margot -- features in Tavernier's film, too, because one of Madame de Lafayette's characters famously died in it, but it is presented almost without explanation, just as if the Comte de Chabannes was caught up accidentally in an unspecified riot. Most effectively, the film self-consciously does not take sides in the conflict, presenting both Catholic and Protestant characters objectively. In the memorable opening scene, the Comte de Chabannes (a moody, sharp-eyed Lambert Wilson, from Of Gods and Men) becomes the film's touchstone in many ways, as we see him taking part in a battle-related slaughter of civilians. We have no idea if Chabannes is a Catholic or a Protestant, or whether the innocent people he kills are Catholics or Protestants: although we learn those details later, all we need to know is that the folly of the killing has made Chabannes resolve to remove himself from the conflict.

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Mélanie Thierry, best known for her role in that celluloid abortion called Bablyon A.D., is a smoldering presence as Madame de Mézières, who becomes the title character. The character's beauty and wealth and intelligence make her attractive to four men and, worse, a valuable chip for her father to trade in the noble marriage market. She is loved, seemingly earnestly, by Henri de Guise, played dashingly by Gaspard Ulliel, best remembered as the Romantic lead in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles, as well as by her humanist friend and tutor the Comte de Chabannes, and highest and mightiest of them all, by the brother of King Charles IX himself, the Duc d'Anjou, played by a smirking, ear-ringed Raphaël Personnaz -- and, oh yes, by her husband, the Prince de Montpensier (the mild-mannered Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Evelina Meghnagi has a short appearance as the Queen Mother, Catherine de Médicis, but there is little time spent in the Louvre, and little reference to other major players of the War of Religion, like the Huguenot leader Coligny or Henri de Navarre, who will become Henri IV and find a solution to end the Wars of Religion. At least for a while.

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