Reviewer: Charity Bishop
It was a time when Queen Elizabeth was on the English throne and France was in turmoil. The budding French Protestant Reformation was struggling against a Catholic Occupation and blood ran in the streets. This turbulent era is the setting of The Princess of Montpensier, a French-language film based on a short novella about lost love.
Being in love does not always mean marriage... and this is the unfortunate situation Marie (Mélanie Thierry) finds herself in when her father chooses to change his newly forged alliances and marry her off not to the young man who rules her heart, but to another whose family name would prove more beneficial in the long run. While the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) is dedicated to her happiness, and Marie is determined to bear the separation from her would-be-lover Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) with Christian dedication and tolerance, her removal to the country leaves her melancholy. Her one companion in the absence of her husband, who has been called to the front to serve the Duke of D'Angou (Raphaël Personnaz) in clearing the streets of Protestant rabble, is her husband's faithful friend and servant, the disgraced Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). Once a warrior that had a change of heart when he accidentally killed a pregnant woman in a skirmish, the Comte desires a quiet life.
But the passions of the heart do not swiftly diminish and when Marie catches the eye and favor of the Duke and is brought to court, the events that follows threaten to unravel her emotions and bring all of them to ruin. Even though this is a foreign-language film, I was quite swiftly caught up into it through the exquisite detail in its authentic Elizabethan costumes and the beautiful scenery and interiors. The characters are fascinating in their own right, each nuanced and complicated, though sometimes frustrating in their decisions -- and in some instances, we do not understand why they made them. But because of the language barrier, I never really emotionally connected with any of them, which makes the occasional losses not nearly as moving as they could have been. The cast is wonderful and the dialogue is poetic and rich, coming from a script that is deep without being too introspective.
But where any potentially offensive content is concerned, I'm afraid it is a bit of a disappointment, containing several scenes of nudity and related sexual material. Marie is stripped naked and bathed on her wedding night -- the camera (and creepily enough, her father) moves around her several times in examination of her beauty; in a later scene, a servant wakes them and neither she nor her husband are uncomfortable walking around naked in his presence. When she is shaken by her father and slammed into a wall, it seems likely she might pop out of her low-cut top, but she doesn't. The consummation of the wedding night is awkwardly and partially shown and overheard; later she sees one of her maids having a clothed tryst with a footman. It's implied that two people commit adultery (all that is shown is kissing), but Henri is very forward with where he puts her hands whenever they are together. There is no language to speak of, but the violence can be disconcerting as people are stabbed in the street -- among them a pregnant woman (another is later threatened). We see a man sawing the limbs off a dead wild boar, and a dead dog is found stabbed in the courtyard.
Much of this plot relies on information many audiences with no deeper knowledge of the era will be unfamiliar with -- the Protestant / Catholic skirmishes in France during the later reign of Elizabeth I. If you are unaware of the politics of it and the reasons behind the behavior, as well as where it ultimately leads, you may be lost when it comes to the historical emphasis of the storyline. It assumes the audience is already aware of events and there is rarely much discussion over them. Morality comes into play in some instances, such as Marie struggling to remain faithful to her husband, but ultimately physical desire overcomes restraint and everyone sacrifices any values they professed to have in the first place. Because of this, and because of the immorality, while it was a beautiful way to spend a couple of hours, I found it ultimately unsatisfying.