Swashbuckling in widescreen, photographed as close to Technicolor as you can get today and with a percussive soundtrack by Philippe Sarde, Bertrand Tavernier's Princess of Montpensier recreates a visually grander era of moviemaking. The source is a tale by the 17th-century writer Madame de La Fayette (La Princesse de Cleves), and it simmers with cultural ferment and incipient feminism.
In 1562, a gorgeous princess named Marie (Melanie Thierry) is desired by a quartet of men. First is her cold, correct husband, the prince, whom she wedded through an arranged marriage. Second is her seemingly stoic tutor. Third is a dallying heir-apparent, and last is a sardonic, scar-faced duelist, the bloodthirsty Duc de Guise, the man Marie has always loved.
Engrossing as it is, The Princess of Montpensier isn't completely about the past—the viciousness of the French religious wars and the ethnic cleansing they pioneered are still relevant. The good news and the bad: Tavernier is too historically aware for melodrama. The Princess of Montpensier is a visual treat, but it's a plausible, unoperatic epic. To counterbalance the nobility, Tavernier brings in peasant comic relief, showing a couple caught having a quickie in the kitchen and marveling at a boorish noble describing how he fattens lampreys for the table.
Watching a successful historical film, we should be shocked, confused, discomfited: seeing the way the princess-to-be is stripped and displayed by her ladies-in-waiting, for example. Gloriously built, but not a commanding presence, Thierry doesn't try to break our hearts; rather, she impresses on us the intellectual sorrows of a young woman trapped. She embodies the sadness of an era when a well-born woman was the guardian of a husband's honor—without having any of her own.
'The Princess of Montpensier' opens Friday, April 29, at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.