There’s something about Marie. Maybe it’s her angelic face with its wide-set eyes, pink trout pout and peaches and cream complexion. Maybe it’s her overflowing bosom or her overflowing riches.
Whatever it is, her je ne sais quoi has every man in Bertrand Tavernier’s elaborate 16th-century French drama, The Princess of Montpensier, losing their royal minds.
The fight for the nubile heiress Marie Mezieres (Mélanie Thierry) is set against a war between the Catholics and the Huguenots. The year is 1567 and all of Marie’s finely cast and handsome suitors are getting dirty and sweaty on the battlefield.
In fables, as in nature, the brazen, macho paramour attracts the female. Here, Henri de Guise, the reckless and aggressive duke -played by Gaspard Ulliel, whose aggression was last seen in the title role of Hannibal Rising -has Marie’s heart. However, she is forced to marry the unremarkable Prince Philippe, who in green velour looks like Peter Pan and is, admittedly, not as sexy.
Rounding out this predictable love pentagon are the Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), the king’s brother who seems more cunning because of his dark eyeliner, and the wise Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, who played the just plain cunning Merovingian in The Matrix trilogy).
The story slows when Philippe is called to fight the Protestants, leaving his new bride with his honourable mentor, Chabannes. Tavernier shows them studying poetry, watching the stars and picking herbs, thus giving Marie enough dialogue to establish brains, but not wit. Chabannes may be honourable but he is still a man, and soon he is tugging on his ruffled collar to relieve the heat he feels around his companion.
The unlucky victim in this villain-less story is Marie who, as a woman, is treated as merely an object to be traded or won. Thierry, 29, plays her with a sparkling innocence and youthful spirit; but sometimes she gives her a blank stare, like a doe in headlights, so you’re not sure what Marie thinks of her hunters or if she is thinking at all.
The film, which is based on a 1662 short story by French writer Madame de La Fayette, is as gorgeous as its heroine. For almost two-and-a-half hours, Tavernier, who turned 70 this year, roots you in the era: in medieval castles where glittery masquerades are held, in rolling green hills where it rains leaves and in sodden fields where warring soldiers fall.
But what little passion is established at the beginning is mostly forgotten halfway through when Marie and Henri are reunited. There is more fire between the men who work themselves into a frenzy vying for her affection. The result is that this epic film is less of a romantic love story and more like an episode of The Bachelorette.
– The Princess of Montpensier opens June 3 at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
This review was originally published in the National Post June 3 2011.