The Princess of Montpensier Review
It's France in 1562, during the war between Catholics and Huguenots. Marie de Mezières (Mélanie Thierry) ia in love with Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) but is forced into marriage with Philippe, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). When her husband goes off to battle, Marie is left in the family estate in the care of the Prince's former mentor François de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). Chabannes is a man who has turned his back on war and harbours a secret love for his charge.
Many artists turn to the past as they age, often feeling no longer able to relate to contemporary times. However, while Bertrand Tavernier has certainly set films in the present day, including Une semaine de vacances (which has been MIA on UK DVD for far too long) and It All Starts Today..., he went back to the middle ages with his second feature Que la fête commence (known in English as Let Joy Reign Supreme, it has not had UK distribution apart from a television showing on Channel 4 in 1985). Tavernier has shown himself comfortable in all manner of past times, such as Occupied France in World War II (Laissez-Passer), the early years of the twentieth century (Sunday in the Country, also shamefully unavailable on UK DVD), the end of the nineteenth (The Judge and the Assassin) and further back still.
With The Princess of Montpensier he takes us back to sixteenth century France. The film is based on a novella by Madame de la Fayette, originally published in 1662. It's noticeable how sure-footed Tavernier is in telling this story, from pitched battles to courtroom intrigues to romance. With the help of DP Bruno de Keyzer and score composer Philippe Sarde, both frequent Tavernier collaborators, the film never looks and sounds less than splendid.
Yet somehow this film falls short. It is named after the Princess, and while Mêlanie Thierry acquits herself well in a role that sees her grow from naïve if passionate teenager to stateswoman, it's not her fault that she is not the most interesting character. That is Chabannes, played with a world-weary authority by Lambert Wilson. The film begins with him, but it doesn't centre on him and doesn't end with him, and that's a problem it doesn't quite overcome. As the principal older person in a story largely populated by characters barely out of their teens, Wilson tends to unbalance the film.
Any Tavernier is better than no Tavernier, and while this film is not quite of the top flight, there's plenty in it which makes it worth seeing. Back in 2008, Optimum released the Bertrand Tavernier Collection, five of his earlier features on DVD. Dare I suggest it's time to release some more?
The opening menu screen of The Princess of Montpensier gives us the choice of “Deutschland” and “United Kingdom”, which leads you respectively to a Kinowelt ident and German-language copyright notices and menus, and the Optimum ident and English-language. The disc is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. (There is also a Blu-ray edition. Affiliate links on this review refer to the DVD. For links to the Blu-ray, go here.)
The Princess of Montpensier was shot in Scope with anamorphic lenses, so the DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1 and is widescreen-enhanced. As you'd expect from a brand-new film, it looks just fine – sharp and colourful when it needs to be, with strong blacks.
There are two soundtrack options, both in Dolby Digital 5.1, the original French-language soundtrack and a German dub. Subtitles are available in German or English. This is a very active soundtrack, with the surrounds being used for Sarde's sweeping score, some directional sounds and ambience.
The only extra is a making-of documentary, which runs 58:38. This is a fairly standard piece, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, plus interviews with key cast and crew members. As you might expect, Tavernier dominates this piece, both by being onscreen and with plenty of people paying tribute to his energy and enthusiasm.