When an internationally powerful Frenchman was arrested recently and charged with a sexual assault against a hotel maid in Manhattan, it opened up a startlingly retrograde can of worms.
While the alleged malefactor succeeded in permanently embalming the caricature of "French" and "socialist," his behavior reflected an ancient assumption of sexual entitlement among powerful, cultivated European men that seems to have largely failed to survive the trip over the Atlantic (understandably so, because the people who established this country were poor and Puritan). While the French want no association with an alleged rapist, it's true that the sexually wanton chambermaid is a staple of French comedy and erotica, and rich Frenchmen have traditionally been permitted to sow their oats outside of their marriages.
The episode also recalls the ancient legend of droit du seigneur, a purported medieval custom whereby lords had the right to molest the daughters of their serfs. This particular custom may be a fiction, but Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier tells the story of a 16th-century noblewoman whose body is not her own, and who lives in a world in which marriages are political alliances and prudent women suppress their romantic feelings. The film is based on an early novel by Madame de La Fayette, who is best known for The Princess of Cleves. Like the later masterpiece, The Princess of Montpensier is tied closely to French history. In this case, the setting is the bloody period of religious wars in the 1560s under Queen Catherine de Medici, which would culminate in the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in which Catholic mobs killed thousands of Huguenots, in Paris and elsewhere.
Marie (played by the lovely Mélanie Thierry, who brings 21st-century hair, skin and teeth to this muddy place) seems to be a fictitious character, but at least two of the four men taken by her charms are based on historical figures well known to the French: Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), a fierce warrior from a clan that was prominent among the Catholic fanatics, and the Duke of Anjou (later Henry III, and played by Raphael Personnäz), a cunning son of Catherine who prefers pleasure to war (and who often shows up in other movies, especially ones that concern England's Elizabeth I).
But the two most interesting men appear earlier in the story: First, there's Comte de Chabannes, a middle-aged, world-weary Renaissance man. The film opens with the sickening aftermath of a battle, and when Chabannes commits a particularly horrifying act of violence in order to save his own life, he decides to desert the field rather than do any more killing. He's quickly reunited with Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), a young Catholic prince he had once tutored in languages, philosophy and martial arts. Montpensier extends his protection to his old teacher, and they return home as peace seems to be at hand.
It's the middle of the film that seems freshest—as opposed to the hackneyed court intrigue (and massacre of Huguenots) that dominates the last third. This long middle affords us a glimpse of domestic relations in the dying medieval world, as the earnest but uncharismatic Montpensier is forced into a politically advantageous marriage to Marie, who is in love instead with the dashing Henri. The consummation of the marriage is presented as an enforcement of a contract, complete with witnesses. The humiliation of the couple—who barely know each other—is shown in painful detail as their parents and attendants wait just outside the bedchamber.
When Montpensier is called away for the resumption of military hostilities, he leaves his old teacher behind to instruct Marie, who proves to be an eager pupil. Marginally literate, she still cannot write and she insists on learning. In these scenes with Chabannes, Marie begins to understand that even if her body is not free, her mind is her own. As the haunted, bereft Chabannes, Lambert Wilson is once again riveting as a figure of conscience—he plays a similar character as the leader of the 20th-century monks in Of Gods and Men, which has had a successful run in local theaters this spring.
While Henri and the Duke of Anjou seem like figures from a bygone era, the others—Marie, Montpensier and Chabannes—give us an impression of psychologically modern people trapped in a ritual pageant from which they cannot escape. Chabannes is a modern-thinking intellectual who has to do some killing on the side (not unlike the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who also lived in this era), while Montpensier and Marie are simply bright and decent youngsters who live in a barbaric, stupid world.
The Princess of Montpensier is most certainly a period piece, but it doesn't feel like a costume drama. The period detail is excellent without being fussy: The castles seem cold, the fields seem muddy and the swordplay seems heavy and exhausting. Furthermore—and I'm not sure I've noticed this so clearly before—the characters are authentically young. When one reads histories of the period, it's staggering how fast people needed to grow up and procreate before dying. (The Duke of Anjou was killed when he was 39, for example, while Henri de Guise was dead just shy of his 38th birthday; both are in their late teens and early 20s during the events of this film.) The scenes at court in Tavernier's film reflect this: There are very few old people in this violent, sickly place. So when the sun breaks through, or genuine friendship or sexual passion emerges, we feel all the more grateful.