For the self-conscious auteur, the period piece poses a special set of problems: how to tackle that middle-brow art-house staple without giving into to the easy normalizations of its more anonymous practitioners, directors who make the past seem both safely past and, in experiential terms, no different from the present. In the case of two (semi-)recent films from veteran French masters, the solution seems to be a combination of a faithful, dramatic treatment of the material and distancing devices that foreground the artificiality of both source text and cinematic treatment, and the pastness of the setting.
In The Duchess of Langeais, Jacques Rivette employed such Brechtian measures as self-conscious intertitles and intentionally creaky floorboards, but ultimately crafted a sneakily moving drama out of Honoré de Balzac's novella. Meanwhile, in his final film, The Romance of Astreé and Céladon, fellow New Wave vet Eric Rohmer imagined Honoré d'Urfé's 17th-century text, set in the fifth, as something unfolding in a world utterly foreign to our own, yet brimming over with delicious, easily graspable pleasures.
In his similarly rich take on classic material, in this case Madame de La Fayette's 1662 short story The Princess of Montpensier, Bertrand Tavernier relies less on distanciation than his fellow countrymen, while still refusing to normalize the historical setting. Rejecting the lush cinematography, the simple through lines, and, until the film's end, the easy musical cues of the Merchant-Ivory school, the Coup de Torchon auteur ensures that his 16th-century setting maintains its degree of foreignness to the viewer, even as the director colors his world with precise details. And yet, Tavernier also refuses a radical Brechtianism in favor of an immediate, passionate mode of storytelling that brings both the characters' passions and their violent behaviors (both on and off the battlefield) to the fore, as they emerge from between lengthy sets of conversations.
Unfolding against the Protestant-Catholic conflicts that tore apart France in the middle of the 16th century, The Princess of Montpensier opens on the bloody battlefields of the rural countryside as the camera tracks across an endless row of victims while the few straggling survivors are gruesomely dispatched by men swooping by on horseback. The elemental ugliness of the landscape as well as the cruelty of the wartime actions (emphasized by the ringing sounds of metal-flesh contact on the soundtrack) soon translates, in the domestic sphere, to drab castle interiors and violence against women, the latter the inevitable result of the male characters' desperate attempts to control and possess the females in their life.
The much sought after object of most of the film's male characters is the eponymous character, née Marie de Mézières, a desirable target for marriage, both because of her family's fortunes and her ample physical attributes—ostentatiously displayed by the plunging bustlines of her outfits. Although she falls in love at a young age with Henri, Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), she's forced into a more advantageous marriage with Philippe, Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). On their wedding night, in a ritual that illustrates both the rigidity of court custom and the lack of female agency (even on the most intimate matters), Marie's nude body is washed by two attendants in preparation for the marital consummation. When she climbs into a curtain-ringed bed with her new husband, a delegation of (mostly) women wait just feet away for the result. The verdict: "Just a mousy squeak," reports an attendant to the couple's fathers, playing chess in the next room, explaining the lack of coital noise, "but there's blood."
From the passivity of the wedding night, Marie begins to regain her natural assertiveness when her husband is called away to combat and she takes up lessons with his old teacher, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a newly converted pacifist after witnessing the arbitrary horrors of a civil war. With the Comte, Marie affirms her ruddy personality, demanding to learn how to write and displaying a curiosity about the wider world, and it's not long before the older man declares his love to his pupil. He won't be the only one to do so. Coming into renewed contact with her old lover, Henri, whom, despite her protestations to the contrary, she still loves, she also attracts the fevered attention of the powerful Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), a charming, slightly effeminate playboy who vows to win her for himself.
Meanwhile, her husband, for whom she never expresses much of an interest, becomes violently jealous of her old lover (he seems blind to the Duc's attentions), and tries to contain his bride. But Marie, as played by an excellent Mélanie Thierry, is uncontainable, a creature of impulse, but an impulse born of an understandable pride and a belief in her right to self-determination. And yet, this character also advises a friend, bound to be married to Marie's widowed father, to "submit to her fate." Torn between the desire for freedom and the ingrained dictates of a stringent society, the princess's inclinations can only manifest themselves in the form of romantic love—in this case, for Henri—or in the convent, even as one gets the feeling that were other options available to her, she would gladly pursue an alternate course.
Clearly, Marie represents Tavernier's main area of interest, but the characters and situations surrounding the princess are given no less vivid, detailed treatment by the filmmaker. The Comte de Chabannes, stubbornly, selflessly committed to his would-be lover even as his official loyalties lie elsewhere, and driven by his conscience to reject warfare, is a particularly rich creation, while the world of the court and battlefield, while both deglamorized, register as vibrantly imagined spaces. Only once does Tavernier take a clear wrong step, giving in to the overheated dramatizations he had scrupulously avoided as he offers up the inevitable footage of the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre cued to both a traditional swirling musical score and the reading of a letter from Chabannes to Marie. This sequence allows the Comte to assert his heroism in a rather obvious way, while the staging of the massacre has precisely the feel of the grand set piece Tarvernier had smartly withheld throughout the rest of the film.
Luckily, the director soon turns his attention back to Marie, closing his movie with a close-up of the character's face staring down the camera, an ambiguous expression spread across her countenance. Like a calmer version of Isuzu Yamada, facing down Mizoguchi's camera at the end of Osaka Elegy, Thierry's gaze challenges the audience, implicitly commenting on a world that, then as now, seeks to control female agency.