There's a certain stigma attached to period pieces; a preconceived notion that the film at hand will be elegant, beautiful, and excessively boring. Of course, a stereotype doesn't just come from anywhere, and those that decide to judge a movie by its poster may not be so far off in their hasty dismissal.
But what is it that makes these films feel so drab? Is it their no-nonsense commitment to the period that saps the life out of any given story, getting wrapped up in dry historical politics that lead to copious amount of dialogue? Or is it the go-to romantic stories that they refuse to veer from, ones we're so accustomed to that even the skilled art design, cinematography, and acting can't fool us into giving a damn? Maybe it's simply the running time, which for some reason is prohibited from dropping below two hours. These are innate problems within the genre, ones that are rarely taken into account by filmmakers despite the general consensus. French director Bertrand Tavernier's 2010 Cannes Entry "The Princess of Montpensier" generally sticks to those typical elements, but when it does pave its own way, the movie feels fresher than most of its kin.
Set in France of 1562 during the Wars of Religion, we open on a massacre in a farm house led by scholarly-looking Counte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, "The Matrix Reloaded/Revolution"). After the mayhem, Chabannes rides off with his troupe but can't shake the previous incident, in particular, the murder of a middle-aged women who may have been pregnant. He deserts his side in favor of indifference, no longer able to murder in the name of Catholic or Protestant. On the road, he meets Phillipe, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, "Love Songs"), who used to be a student of his when the prince was a wee lad. Phillipe takes him in out of compassion, despite his dissenting behavior. Meanwhile, Marie de Mezieres (Mélanie Thierry, "Babylon A.D."), heir of a great fortune, finds love in Phillipe's cousin Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel "Hannibal Rising"), a romantic war hero with a more than a few brutal war wounds. What ultimately tears them apart is her father's wish for prestige, and he promptly marries her off to Phillipe despite her having never met him.
Guise makes his disappointment clear to Phillipe, but those are the breaks, and the newlyweds return to one of his castles along with Chabannes. Their relationship is awkward yet traditionally respectful, with Marie maturing quickly and giving the utmost deference to her husband. Before they can enjoy their first day as a couple, hubby is called off to war and he sets his mentor to the task of educating and keeping a close eye on the princess. In doing so, the older man is now privy to every second of her life, which he not only uses to expose her to poetry and astronomy, but also to examine her at every moment. Her ravishing nature and beautiful composition of course leads to a subtle affection, and things get even messier when he is invited to lodge in the castle. The proceeding dinner sets the rest of the story into place, slowly building the secret yearning/relationship between Guise and Marie and the destructive jealousy of Phillipe.
Tavernier uses his time well, slowly mounting the tension of characters unable to get exactly what they desire. What's truly amazing is how far each person comes from the beginning of the story; how their infatuations and flaws change them into completely different human beings by the third act. Of particular note here is Leprince-Ringuet, whose innocent and naive behavior eventually culminates into a dark resentfulness that hits even harder given his relatively innocuous demeanor. People don't always say exactly what's on their mind, but when it calls for it, his delivery of simple lines go further than you'd expect. Something as seemingly pedestrian as "I wish she'd write to me" is handled in such a strange, almost disturbing way, as if Phillipe is slowly unrooting vile and insecure emotions buried deep within. Derailment could've lead to a caricature villain, but here it's more believable and, in turn, stirring.
Most of the story is framed with as few cuts as possible, with each steadi-cam shot changing angles and following characters like a shadow. Movement is tasteful, only relocating when appropriate, which gives a sense of liveliness to the proceedings. While it's a praise thrown around a lot, it actually does feel like the director has transported the audience to 1500s France, as he manages to stay up close with the performers but also outline the beautiful locations in a welcoming way. Also a treat are the war scenes, which are admittedly scarce but are expertly choreographed and handled in long takes bereft of the kind of overcutting that ruins the action. To be clear, we're not talking Theodoros Angelopoulos long, but it is nice to see a director invigorating the subject with intelligence and not settling for overly academic cinematography or superfluous cutting.
Still, for a movie where everyone is smitten by the lead female character, it just doesn't feel sexy enough. It's all much too subdued, and a story of this nature should be reeking of sexual tension. Even when the characters briefly discuss any sort of erotic behavior, it's handled as a side note and quickly dismissed. Towards the beginning, Marie walks in on some serious intercourse and is received with a smile by the receiving maiden, an expression she returns before she exits to let them have at it. Briefly, there's a sense of longing for this kind of freedom, something Marie can never have due to her birthright -- but this idea is never returned to. These moments on sexuality are much too fleeting for a film focusing on yearning and lust and it definitely cheapens the experience.
Without spoiling anything (and if it isn't obvious enough,) things finally culminate and there are betrayals, deaths, and duels, all leading to some decent closure and happiness. But for all that, "The Princess of Montpensier" still can't help but feel a little slight afterwards. The story is a classic, but therein lies the problem: Tavernier tries his damndest to tell it properly, and while he mostly succeeds, he fails in finding anything new or worth telling. Much like the lot of them, they won't start any discussions and they're swiftly forgotten in a matter of time. Given some of the approach here, the filmmaker has made a step in the right direction, especially in a niche that consistently wades in comfortable water. What it really could've used, though, was a few lunges into new territory. The same old royal/romance plots just don't dig deep enough anymore. [B]