Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier opens in 1567, with France mired in a brutal religious civil war, bloodily torn asunder between the Catholic loyalists and the Huguenot heretics. The Marquis de Mézières (Philippe Magnan) strikes a bargain with the Duc de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) that will wed the Marquis' gorgeous, virginal daughter, Marie (Mélanie Thierry), to Montpensier's son, Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) -- though the intendeds have scarcely glimpsed each other. This throws a serious kink into Marie's plans by nixing her impending marriage to cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), with whom she is completely smitten. Meanwhile, Philippe's former tutor, the middle-aged Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) withdraws from the ongoing religious struggle after accidentally stabbing and killing a pregnant woman. He joins the now-married Philippe and Marie en route to their rustic castle home of Mont-sur-Brac and takes up residence there, tutoring Marie on many subjects. Inevitably, Chabannes falls in love with the young woman, yet he resists acting on his desires; meanwhile, she not only continues to draw the amorous attentions of Henri and Philippe, but also elicits advances from the slimy Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), and therefore emerges as the object of an ongoing rivalry between three hotheaded and blindly passionate young men.
Most remarkable in the film is the subtle understatement of the devotion between Marie and Chabannes. The movie bears its heart and soul in the early scenes that have Chabannes tutoring the young woman and visibly growing attached to her but resisting the temptation to make any physical advances, in part out of loyalty to Philippe. So convincing is Chabannes' emotional transition that the one occasion when he makes an offhanded comment about his affection for the princess seems to be underscoring the obvious. This slight misstep aside, the draw between them is commendably low-key yet detectable -- a convincing romance that hurdles over enormous obstacles (in this case, age and class disparities) but nevertheless remains slightly buried just under the surface of the immediately apparent. Tavernier makes it clear that Chabannes' feelings toward Marie exist on a different level than those of Henri, d'Anjou, or Philippe. Chabannes is an enabler, a cultivator of her intellectual advancement who appreciates her finest emotional gifts; the others seem to covet her affections to possess her and gratify their own libidinous desires. This explains why he stays aloof and detached from the romantic and sexual manipulations of the other men -- to sink to their level would mean compromising the integrity of his adoration for Marie.
All of this is deeply moving and endearing, though it unfortunately takes up too little screen time. In lieu of trusting the Chabannes-Marie relationship enough to let it sustain the action, Tavernier ultimately shifts his dramatic focal point to the intrigues of the husband and the suitors, with machinations designed to capture Marie's heart that occupy center stage during the second act. This is an unwise decision -- the men are so grating, and so off-putting, that we could scarcely care less about their foolish head games. A fraction of this would have been fine; as the movie stands, the petty romantic rivalries are far overwrought.
Fortunately, though, the film rebounds somewhat in its last 20 minutes. We've sensed all along that Marie is reciprocally drawn to Chabannes, but we aren't clear on the degree of her interest. In the closing sequence, Tavernier finally gives us a clear sense, and the scene that discloses this completes the emotional puzzle set up by the tutoring sequences. It's an enormously satisfying catharsis.
The film also deserves merit for its unusual ambition. Through Marie's plight, Tavernier seems interested in grafting a contemporary perspective about love, romance, and sex onto a setting where male-female relationships seem traditionally guided by political needs and manipulative families. Tavernier not only reminds the audience that allowing the romantic desires of one's heart to dictate the future is a relatively recent notion, but makes the movie's core emotionally modern. For this reason, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Montpensier's emotional landscape actually recalls two very different contemporary films: the commendably low-key yet detectable attraction between Chabannes and Marie suggests the Max-Jackie romance at the heart of Tarantino's Jackie Brown, while our longing for Marie to escape from the men's grotesque sexual intrigues and head for Chabannes' arms suggests Joe Buck's need to abandon hustling and return to Ratso Rizzo at the end of Midnight Cowboy. The Princess of Montpensier may not be a perfect film, but it's certainly a fascinating situation when a romantic epic set in 16th century France reminds one of two urban dramas set in the 20th century -- perhaps a cinematic first.