Vibrant in sight and sound is Bertrand Tavernier's sweeping France-based Renaissance-era costumer based on a novella from Madame de Lafayette. Even for discerning art house cineastes not up on their 16th-Century French history they'll be strapped in for a long, yet involving conflagration of duty and passion.
The Princess of Montpensier (in French with English subtitles) features Melanie Thierry, Gaspard Ulliel and Lambert Wilson. It's able to connect considering all the unrest in and around the Middle East being set against the horrific senseless strife of Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) while managing a viable angle in the romance department.
Melanie Thierry commands attention as the lovely Marie de Mezieres, arranged to be married to the young prince Groggier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), even though she's enamored with her rakish epee-sharp cousin Henri de Guise (Ulliel).
Quite a wedding night ensues with advisers, family, and underlings as their marital relationship is interrupted with Phillippe drafted in what really tore the country apart. For his wife he retains his former tutor, an aging nobleman Count Chabannes (Wilson, very effective in Of Gods and Men).
While instructing her on astronomy, literature and poetry, he protects her from a perilous, amoral court presided by the steely regal Catholic presence Catherine de Medici, and, of course, becomes smitten with her. The dandified Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) also is overtaken by this beauty as the battle-stricken Phillippe will develop a mean jealous streak.
Tavernier displays his talents with the cast and his production department to keep what might be an exercise in war melodrama excess consistently gripping and well-mounted in its widescreen format. He gets solid craft contributions to make derring-do at a naughty masquerade ball, the slaughter of heretics and even the chateaus often simmer in an un-gratuitous, stylish way.
It's easy to see from the way a pro-to-feminist Marie transfixes her many, often ill-fated suitors, as Thierry is an intriguing enough, comely central figure in what may be confusing to a few caught up in a little of the subtext and the politics of the time. That is a relatively minor hiccup in how love and the carnage of war can be captured in all of its splendor, almost like a glorious western out of the Dark Ages.
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