The Princess of Montpensier is well-made redundancy, boasting everything you'd expect from a lavish period romance: an ethereal beauty, an honorable warrior, a jealous husband, a dashing nobleman and a villainous dandy. Its 16th-century French backdrop captures the endless chains of civil wars that pitted Catholics against Protestants, while its boudoirs and battlefields provide the easy-on-the-eyes cast opportunities to fight for romance, justice and, on the princess's part, self-discovery.
In other hands, the film would be stuffy, staid and, ultimately, forgettable. But cinema veteran Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight, A Sunday in the Country) is such a masterfully agile and expressive filmmaker that he turns cliché into exquisite genre. The plotting may be predictable, but the experience is vividly immediate, moving from the intimate to the epic with style and grace.
Four men vie for the affections of Princess Marie de Mézières (beautiful but bland Mélanie Thierry) as Tavernier carefully weaves a complicated and unsentimental minefield of emotions and expectations. It's a ruthlessly masculine age and the princess, educated and sensitive, has only the power to be desired. Still, she tries to be the captain of her own fate by choosing which man she will ultimately love — with the typical melodramatic results.
There aren't a whole lot of surprises in The Princess of Montpensier but what's on screen is top-notch. The battle scenes are exciting and realistic, bringing with them harsh brutality and moral complexity. The court conflicts are equally energetic, briskly but effectively sketching all the players while establishing the passions and frustrations at play. More impressive is how Tavernier tells his story without taking sides, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about which man deserves Marie's love most.
Filled with action, atmosphere, lavish costumes and fantastical settings, this is old-fashioned storytelling elevated to epic cinema, the kind of movie nobody makes anymore. Thank goodness the 70-year-old Tavernier still can.
Opens Friday, April 22, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
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