Passion is an essential part of humanity, that drive from somewhere, driving us to do something, more often than not inexplicable and illogical. Who knows why we evolved this trait, to make life-changing or life-ending decisions based on the eruption of some deep emotional well that can result in what we think of as miracles, or can be counterproductive to the point of disaster. The historical epic in cinema draws upon passion as a subject, often romanticizing such a force beyond all proportion, failing to heed how destructive it can be. Bertrand Tavernier is a cinematic master at examining human nature and its various victories and flaws in equal measure, crafting observations that we can understand despite topics that could not be more disparate from our own experiences. It is easy to see his body of work as that of a father figure, one that can enrich our own lives, and we feel rewarded for having seen it.
The Princess of Montpensier is set in 1567 as the war between the Huguenots and the Catholics is aflame once again; it is compared to a brush fire that had not quite been extinguished. Very little can set off such a conflict that even the players cannot understand. Religious figures are present, but do not pretend to represent religion; nobles and their armies take up arms, but nobody seriously proposes to explain what the war is about other than a vague disagreement. The warriors know only that they are to fight, until they run out of enemies or they are told an accord is reached. There are combat sequences, simultaneously thrilling and rough-hewn; they do not appear fussily choreographed and the fighters often exhibit momentary distraction or anger that is out of place. They all seem ordinary people who for whatever reason are compelled to fight. The Comte de Chabannes is an older fighter, has knowledge of poetry and history, enough to know how much he doesn’t know. After inadvertently killing a pregnant woman, he forsakes all battles and retreats into the protection of the young Prince Phillipe de Montpensier. Phillipe is inexperienced, and not an altogether bad person, but becomes capable of great violence and irrationality as he attains power he does not seem comfortable wielding. He fights alongside Henri de Guise, a lothario who enjoys the attack, but has little ambition other than obtaining that which is out of reach. Henri desires Marie, a beautiful woman who is arranged to marry Phillipe, setting the stage for endless court intrigues.
Like any costume drama, these intrigues drive the story. What sets The Princess of Montpensier apart is what Tavernier does with the plot points. There is no real protagonist or antagonist, though the setup would suggest one will develop. Even the titular Princess is hardly heroic, as she, Henri, and Phillipe are equally shallow, foolish, and impulsive. Chabannes is as close to a sympathetic character as we get, though he is as often wrong as right, and engages in destructive behavior as much as any of the players. The Princess of Montpensier is an opportunity to observe, under the guidance of Tavernier, human behavior in service of a larger point. Perhaps this is the erosive power of passion, and the way it drives men to madness, women to idiocy, and society to mutual destruction and eternal warfare. The Catholics and Huguenots are interchangeable and passionate about whatever they believe, and between intrigues drive random sharp implements into one another. Phillipe is impetuous but passionate about appearances and the role he should play, and the role his wife must occupy. Marie does not love her husband, but relishes the attention lavished on her by many suitors while harboring her rather shallow love for Henri. Henri is passionate about whatever he happens to want at the time, be it eviscerating peasants, pursuing Marie, or going after greater opportunities. Chabannes seems the odd man out, with no drive other than serving his master with honor despite Phillipe’s utter lack of honor. The most interesting character is the Duc d’Anjou, a young but clever man who can get away with most anything and does so with moderation. His trait is a distinct lack of passion for anything; he is a cynic, but a bemused one, content to watch but intervening when tempers flare. His is the cooler head that makes a point of prevailing when possible.
Apart from any larger point to be made, The Princess of Montpensier revels in an occasionally clinical eye on human behavior that we see as strange only with the distance of time and geography. In one dramatic setpiece, the father of Phillipe arranges the marriage of his son and Marie with extraordinary salesmanship; it is a strictly business deal that the losing party can see right through. Henri de Guise resents losing Marie (actually, his brother was initially slated to have Marie’s hand with the tacit understanding that Henri would be the only one to touch her), but knows his place. The fetishistic rituals are followed, from the dry wedding to the drier wedding bed where Marie has the humiliating task of submitting to her awkward husband in front of an audience. The fathers of the bride and groom toast over the bloody sheet, a business pact sealed. Phillipe and Henri draw swords over the latter’s advances on Marie, and the fight threatens to become lethal until the Duc d’Anjou blocks them; he publicly admits to his attraction for Marie but impresses upon all the importance of ignoring those impulses. The experienced Count de Chabannes is befuddled in his role of adviser to a younger man who does not seem to want advice, while becoming a teacher to Marie and ultimately becoming unwisely infatuated with her. Marriage between Phillipe and Marie has as much dignity to it as the war that surrounds them, and even more of a chore. Each of the characters is aware of the role each must play, unless passion inconveniently derails those plans. As Marie notes, requesting instruction in how to write, that she has the rest of her life to learn, as though she knows how little there will be to do.
Ultimately shallow emotions cause the careful structure of noble society to become unglued. Perhaps this is the result of passion stripping naked our impulses and true nature. The love affair central to The Princess of Montpensier is at its base a childish love – though I doubt there is another kind. It all seems not worth the effort, and that lesson is well taken. Tavernier takes the time to examine more subtle aspects of behavior in the narrative. Chabannes, in his teachings to Marie, pushes in various way to compel her to muzzle her emotions as his have been. One of the tools is learning to read and write, learning about poetry and science, anything to get her mind off more animal instincts. In another scene, he asks her to saw apart a pig, ostensibly a gesture that the landed gentry partake in; this is after a discussion about love, as though the key to love is in the dirty and inconvenient moments without which romance cannot occur. The women and men are separated by ritual and indifference, while the men seem to express a more genuine affection. The genders understand those of their own tribe, while the opposite sex remains forever a mystery, and not one worth exploring.† Every scene is thick with such ideas, the most crucial dialogue being those words unspoken between gestures.
The Princess of Montpensier is exceedingly well written and acted, with complete immersion into the era with a sumptuously detailed production.† Rather than casting simple archetypes into a story of familiar intrigues, Tavernier allows more natural characters to inhabit their imperfect roles, playing their parts to a thoughtful and chaotic conclusion. If there can only be one take-home point, it is that passion can be inspiring, but more often is destructive upon ourselves and those unfortunate enough to be the victims of that passion. When I think of figures that have passion and inspire it in others, any number of political demagogues come to mind. The world is far better off with moderation and caution than it is with passion and romance, each its own form of delusion.