This luscious and beautiful film is profoundly anti-war, yet that message is enhanced by a warm and modern emotional feel, despite the setting in France in the 16th century.
Bertrand Tavernier has a dream cast and sensual cinematography. The look and sound of “Princess” makes war truly horrifying while valuing love, honour, bravery and learning. It’s a rich and languorous mix that grabs your attention through all of its 138-minute running time.
I love the British Film Institute (BFI) because of the comprehensive depth of all that is shown there and the quirky programming that has passion and excellence in film at its core.
Based on a 17th century work by Madame de Lafayette, “Princess” tells the tale of a young heiress, in love with a Duke but promised to a Prince. Independence of thought is in Princess Marie’s character, which is not helpful to her in her position as a bargaining chip for her parents.
Melanie Thierry is a talent to watch out for. She brings intelligent rebellion and great style to the role of Marie and is utterly believable in scenes with some of the great French actors who are featured in key parts.
Director Tavernier made the impressive “Holy Lola” and “In The Electric Mist”. He brings an artist’s sensibility to his big historical scenes. Horse chases and huge battles all stand out in “Princess”, as does the beauty of the countryside of Auvergne.
Religious details are absent, but Tavernier makes it clear there is no right or wrong in these fights. The standout actor is Lambert Wilson as Francois de Chabannes, a war-weary scholar who is left to educate Marie when her husband goes off to battle.
Wilson does more with his eyebrows than most actors do with their whole bodies. It is a nuanced and astonishing performance that grabs your attention, even when he is alongside the younger and more beautiful actors here.
As Prince Philippe de Montpensier, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet personifies nobility and depth. His scenes with Marie’s childhood love, Henri de Guise (a spectacular Gaspard Ulliel) remind you of those old Errol Flynn swashbucklers, while never failing to highlight the character differences between the two men.
The Duke of Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) is shown more sympathetically than in many books and films, with his lines emphasising a lovely wittiness and a great intelligence along with ambiguous moral values.
Of the other cast members, watch out for Judith Chemla as Catherine de Guise (Henri’s sister), Jean-Pol Dubois as the Cardinal of Lorraine and Evelina Meghnagi as Catherine de Medici. There isn’t a bad performance or a clunky piece of dialogue. It’s all elegant and compelling to watch.
Bruno de Keyser’s unique photography team and Philippe Sarde’s music bring unity to the whole and make it all feel seamless and connected.
My companion loved the movie but hated the ending. The packed BFI Studio audience seemed to agree that the end is bleak, while I saw it as more hopeful and open-ended. Tavernier does like to punch you in the gut, metaphorically, so do be warned that there is no place for the squeamish here. It’s full of blood and guts that feel very real.
Sensitive flowers of a gentle disposition should stay away. Anyone else should rush down to the BFI and see this extraordinary French-German production before it ends on August 18th. It reminds me of “Gone With The Wind” and “War And Peace”, because of its big epic feel. I will be buying the DVD, when it is available.