In the French period romance “The Princess of Montpensier,” three noblemen fight enemies in France’s Religious Wars while, on the domestic front, they battle one another over their desire for the coveted title character. A fourth soldier, meanwhile, takes the higher ground in war and love.
Combining these potentially cliched dynamics into art-house spectacle, writer-director Bertrand Tavernier delivers freshness, vitality and intelligence. But he doesn’t achieve the emotional resonance essential for a story about l’amour.
Adapted by Tavernier and two co-writers from Madame de La Fayette’s 17th-century novella, the drama depicts male conquest and female compliance, 1562 style, along with the ever-present struggle of duty versus desire. The backdrop of the Protestant-Catholic wars gives rise to galloping horses and clanging swords, and Tavernier, whose credits include “The Clockmaker” and “Life and Nothing But,” also folds in some of his own pacifist and humanist themes. Initially, that’s enough.
Following an impressive opening battle-carnage passage, we shift to a deal, made by two horrid fathers, that calls for the marriage of Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), dutiful prince of Montpensier, and Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), a financially and physically endowed young heiress. The union’s hardly ideal: The two have never met, and Marie is in love with rugged soldier Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). And not long after the nuptials, Philippe must return to battle.
Marie begins mentally blossoming after Philippe relocates her to a castle and asks the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), his former tutor, to educate her so she can shine in court.
Marie proves an eager pupil, and her time spent with de Chabannes — who, sickened by the brutality, has deserted the war — is mutually fulfilling. Complications arise, however, when de Chabannes falls in love with Marie.
De Chabannes doesn’t act on these feelings, but that’s not the case with Henri and powerful king-to-be Duc D’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) when the two visit the castle. The scenario intensifies when Marie finds herself still in love with Henri. Then, jealous Philippe returns.
Avoiding Hollywood-style melodrama, the film is a treat for the intellect. The dialogue is smart and philosophical. But as the romantic conflict takes hold, the love story needs to affect us. That doesn’t happen.
The problem lies largely with Marie, whose quality of being in a constant state of formation and uncertainty makes her hard to grasp. Thierry, while likable, doesn’t provide enough gravity to make these qualities, along with Marie’s feminist awakening, compelling.
Among the men, Wilson’s de Chabannes stands out. His scenes with Marie contain some of the brightest teacher-student interactions you’ll ever see.
Starring Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel
Written by Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, Bertrand Tavernier, Madame de La Fayette
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Running time 2 hours 19 minutes