Friday, May 6, 2011

Bertrand Tavernier: The Thinking Man's Swashbuckler (The Princess of Montpensier)

Bertrand Tavernier remains one of the last of the great French auteurs who understand that the past is not really past, but pervasive as an enigmatic force fueling our understanding of storytelling, vision and life. The inescapable romantic writers and golden age media masters brought forth all we know of character, structure and most importantly, emotion. His earlier films Coup de Torchon and 'Round Midnight continue to speak volumes about cinema and experience, more so than almost any contemporary pictures.

Tavernier's predeliction for the ouevre of forgotten American master Delmer Daves has enfolded his own mastery of the filmic device. Dark Passage, The Red House and Jubal have infused his understanding of moving images in fascinating ways. His breathtaking new work, The Princess of Montpensier, is no exception.

In essence a character driven period piece, Montpensier incorporates factions of the Walter Scott adventure-romance, the Errol Flynn swashbucklers and the bygone European art film to manifest a robust, gutsy picture unlike any other. Tavernier utilizes his classic Hollywood inspirations to guide us along the psychological and sociological workings of a time and its inhabitants. Melanie Thierry is ideally cast, her fresh open face and searching gaze well suited for the doomed titular heroine, a maiden searching for the truth of love, yet bound by her time and sex to bend at the wills of men. Her domineering father, warrior first love (Gaspard Ulliel), naïve betrothed (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and his conflicted mentor (Lambert Wilson) make up the circle of men who suffocate her with their selfish desires they project onto her. The plot becomes a thick melange of power plays and verbal spars, punctuated by visceral swordfights of virile defense.

The rugged Ulliel, boyish Leprince-Ringuet and wounded Wilson are all spectacular, as they surround the Princess with their intoxicating masculinity. Bruno de Keyzer works wonders with the lens, achieving an aged storybook look under Tavernier's eye, which gives the film a lost 70s preciosness. Master composer Philippe Sarde sonically lifts the enterprise with his movingly romantic score.

What Tavernier has accomplished here may take many generations to reach the surface, but for those in tune with the history of the craft, Montpensier is a treasure.

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