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Movie Review

The Princess of Montpensier

Love, war, and a sumptuous, intelligent 'Princess'

Mélanie Thierry (with Lambert Wilson) portrays the title character.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

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How can the 16th-century heroine of a movie based on a 17th-century novella feel like such a 21st-century woman — without seeming at all anachronistic? That’s the wonder of Bertrand Tavernier’s “The Princess of Montpensier.’’

It’s France in the 1560s. Catholic and Huguenot are fighting to the death. So, too — in this sumptuous and sumptuously intelligent film — are reason and passion, loyalty and desire. Mélanie Thierry plays the title character. With her boxy face, smushy lips, and honey-colored hair, Thierry looks like a Pre-Raphaelite fever dream (or the young Gena Rowlands crossed with an even younger Kate Moss).

She’s a fever dream for at least four men in the movie: her husband, the man she loved before her marriage (her husband’s cousin), the brother of the king (her husband’s cousin, too — aristocracy means nothing if not keeping it in the family), and the older man who tutored her husband in the ways of war, a surrogate father to him, really.

Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, as the Prince of Montpensier, could be an impacted version of the young John Cusack: not-quite handsome, not-quite shrewd, sure of himself only on the battlefield. Gaspard Ulliel, as his rival, Henri de Guise, is a Gallic Hotspur, all headstrong, headlong impulse, and very sexy, too. Raphaël Personnaz’s Duke of Anjou swans through the movie with the insouciance of a Tony Stark — Iron Man wears armor, too, right? — who awoke one morning in the Louvre and found it even more to his liking than Malibu.

The three of them put together can’t match the gravity of the Count de Chabannes, who faces the moral upheaval of finding his devotion to the prince rivaled by his growing love for the princess. It’s the second upheaval Chabannes has had to confront. He’s already forsaken arms (the movie opens with a bravura battle sequence), disgusted by what he’s seen in the wars of religion. “How can people of the same blood and faith kill each other in the name of Christ?’’ he asks. Lambert Wilson, the chief monk in “Of Gods and Men,’’ invests Chabannes with a very different but comparably powerful sense of the spiritual. His winning, world-weary aplomb provides “The Princess of Montpensier’’ with its moral compass. One can easily imagine Chabannes and Montaigne having splendid conversations.

Of course it’s a slightly later French philosopher who best understood what Tavernier is up to. “The heart has its reasons,’’ Pascal wrote, “reason knows nothing of.’’ Both Chabannes and the princess recognize the truth of those words. The tragedy of one is a refusal to act upon that truth. The tragedy of the other is to do so.

The mother of the future princess tries to reassure her daughter about accepting her arranged marriage, even though it means giving up Guise. “Love is the most awkward of things,’’ she says. So far as that goes, mother’s absolutely right, as the rest of “The Princess of Montpensier’’ demonstrates. Yet as the rest of the movie also demonstrates, love is so much more than that. There is a great and perhaps unique French cinematic tradition of braiding together love and manners and the past. Think of “Children of Paradise,’’ “Casque d’Or,’’ “The Earrings of Madame de . . .,’’ “Elena and Her Men.’’ Now one can think of “The Princess of Montpensier,’’ too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER

Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier

Written by: Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau, Tavernier; based on a novella by Madame de La Fayette

Starring: Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel, Raphaël Personnaz

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 140 minutes

Unrated (brief nudity, sexual situations, bloody battlefield and religious violence)

In French, with subtitles

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