La Princesse de Montpensier

November 7, 2010By Nick HammondFilm
la princesse de montpensier, bertrand tavernier
The Princesse de Montpensier (Mélanie Thierry) and her first love, the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel).

Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678), considered by many to be the first modern novel – and denigrated a few years ago by that authority on high culture, Nicolas Sarkozy – has tempted many a movie director, usually resulting in glorious failure. The last such version was reviewed on Paris Update two years ago. All too often, the subtleties and complexities of the book have simply not translated well to the big screen. It seemed promising that Bertrand Tavernier – director of Un Dimanche à la Campagne, Daddy Nostalgie (one of the last films that Dirk Bogarde appeared in) and La Fille d’Artagnan – chose to make a movie out of Lafayette’s much shorter and earlier novella, La Princesse de Montpensier, which poses fewer interpretative problems and lends itself well to an action-packed movie.

Set during the 16th-century wars of religion between the Catholics and Huguenots, and culminating in the horrific Saint Bartholomew massacre, the novella allows Tavernier the chance to stage big battle scenes. If you enjoy shots of overacting extras flinging themselves into the air as horses come thundering by, then this might be the movie for you. However, the real heart of the story revolves around the Princesse de Montpensier (played with understated grace by Mélanie Thierry, who had to face the indignity of being forced by the director to strip naked at every available moment) and the four men who fall in love with her: her childhood sweetheart, the Duc de Guise (played by Gaspard Ulliel, whose formerly boyish good looks have now turned into craggy charm); the man whom she is forced to marry, the Prince de Montpensier (the appropriately named Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, who seems to be popping up with increasing regularity in French films since his wonderful role in Christophe Honoré’s Les Chansons d’Amour); the former tutor of the prince, the Comte de Chabannes (interpreted with great subtlety by Lambert Wilson); and the Duc d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), brother of Charles IX.

On the whole, Tavernier remains faithful to the text and is mindful of the historical significance of the period, even though he does emphasize sexual elements that are not part of the original story. The central scenes, such as when the Duc d’Anjou and the Duc de Guise come across the princess in a boat on a lake, and the ball where the Princess mistakes the masked Anjou for Guise, are beautifully staged and filmed. The selflessness of Chabannes, who loves the princess but never acts on it, is poignant in both novella and film, and Wilson’s performance should merit a nomination as best supporting actor in the next round of Césars (the French Oscars).

Readers of Paris Update will know by now my aversion to overly long films, and this one lasts a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes; but the movie is well paced, and there is enough interest in the excellent acting and stunning French countryside to maintain attention. I would recommend reading Lafayette’s original first, as it will help your appreciation of the film: Terence Cave’s translation of both La Princesse de Clèves and La Princesse de Montpensier in Oxford World’s Classics is the most accurate and informed translation available.


Reader Michael Barker writes: “In contrast to the rather negative, nay snide, reviews by various Parisian film critics, yours is sympathetic to this absorbing, moving and beautifully filmed Tavernier production. The 2 hours 20 minutes passed without longeurs, and [the film] is an epic in the true sense. With so many self-indulgent, navel-gazing modern French melodramas spewing out relentlessly on our screens, it was a pleasure to see a master director at work, drawing distinguished acting from his players, notably Lambert Wilson and Mélanie Thierry.”


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