It's by now film history that the late 1950s/early 1960s Nouvelle Vague reared its head against the bourgeois conventions of the cinéma de papa - "daddy's cinema", the conventionally bourgeois, academic filmmaking of French journeyman directors. But, much as it tried, not only did the Nouvelle Vague generation not kill it, as some of its own members ended up directing films in that spirit (the ever-sarcastic Claude Chabrol comes to mind).
Their contemporary Bertrand Tavernier was never a full member of that generation, but his often estimable career has always veered closer to the comfortably bourgeois cinema that the Nouvelle Vague questioned. La Princesse de Montpensier, his follow-up to the ill-fated American experience of the little-seen In the Electric Mist, is precisely that sort of old-fashioned "daddy's film": a period melodrama adapted from a 17th century novel about that most French of subjects, love, "the most annoying thing in the world" as someone says at the beginning.
At heart, it's a coming-of-age tale of romantic education for the title character, Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry), the stubborn, lovely daughter of a provincial nobleman whose arranged marriage, smack dab in the middle of France's religious wars of the 16th century, throws her into the centre of a veritable maelstrom of desire. There's the fiery, smirking desire of the impetuous, dashing soldier Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel); the blind jealousy of the well-meaning husband she is married to, Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet); and the quiet devotion of her husband's mentor, François de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). But Marie's choices are not hers to make, and the tragedy Mr. Tavernier is looking to underline is that of a modern woman intent on following her heart's desires in a patriarchal society where she has no freedom to choose or to behave.
The director's occasionally stodgy, non-descript yet always clear handling wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the evident miscasting of the lovely Ms. Thierry: her porcelain beauty can't hide her inability to translate Marie's fiery passions, suggesting a more calculated and less voluble character than what the film is aiming for — a shame since the male cast is impeccable, especially the ever wondrous Mr. Wilson. Ms. Thierry's one-note performance ends up minimising a film that, for all its bourgeois, comfortable appearance, had in it the makings of a greater and more intriguing period piece.
Starring Mélanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Gaspard Ulliel, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Raphaël Personnaz, Michel Vuillermoz, Philippe Magnan, Florence Thomassin
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Screenplay: Jean Cosmos, François Olivier Rousseau, Mr. Tavernier, from the novella by Madame de Lafayette, La Princesse de Montpensier
Cinematography: Bruno de Keyzer (colour, widescreen)
Music: Philippe Sarde
Designer: Guy-Claude François
Costumes: Caroline de Vivaise
Editor: Sophie Brunet
Producer: Éric Heumann (Paradis Films, Studiocanal, France 2 Cinéma, France 3 Cinéma, Pandora Filmproduktion)
France/Germany, 2010, 140 minutes
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras VIP 1, Lisbon, July 30th 2012