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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: French Toasts

The Princess of Montpensier
IFC Films

Queen to Play

How helpfully gifted Bertrand Tavernier is. To watch one of his films is to have the world clarified: we see a street, a room, a corridor as more itself than we might have seen it on our own. Like other sterling directors, this French master begins, so to speak, with the intent of revealing the secrets that lie around us, unperceived—and in that rarefied world, he sets his story.

Tavernier has been making films since 1964, and among the many that I have seen are at least three that belong in the world’s film legacy: The Clockmaker of St. Paul, Let Joy Reign Supreme, and The Judge and the Assassin. The first is contemporary, the other two are historical. Tavernier has ranged between the two time frames throughout his life, settling into this era or that, this place or the other, because something there hurts him and he wants to evoke the same compassion in us.

His new film, The Princess of Montpensier, begins in 1567 and is derived from a novella by Madame de La Fayette that was published in 1662—a book that is widely called the first novel in the modern sense of the word. Tavernier, aided by François-Olivier Rousseau and his longtime collaborator Jean Cosmos, has built a screenplay that charges the screen with two themes: the zeal with which one group of religionists murders another group because of a different approach to divinity, and the position of women in society. Thus the film has contemporary echoes.

What we see first is a battle: not armies arrayed in balletic opposition but small groups of men—two or three or four—trying to kill one another. The landscape is immense, though the numerous groups are small, and the fighting is done with swords and spears. (One weak pistol shot at the start only emphasizes the stabbings.) Here is war as it was, small knots of men, trying to kill. Why are they doing this? Because they—Catholics and Protestants—differ in their views of Christianity. This theological dispute couched in blood continues through the picture, occasionally recurring on screen but, even when physically absent, suffusing people’s minds. Most of them, in this account, are Catholic.

We move to individuals after the battle at the castle of the Marquis de Mézières. In a plan connected to politics, he wants his daughter Marie to marry the Prince of Montpensier. Marie is otherwise interested, hotly. When she demurs—because she is in love with Henri de Guise— her father rules sternly as fathers then could. (See Romeo and Juliet.) Marie at last obeys and marries Montpensier. Their wedding night, which is set in a partly curtained bed with some women seated roundabout as witnesses, is classically inept. Partly this is because of her still-flaming passion for Guise. Part of the modernity in La Fayette’s old story is the secret persistence of Marie’s emotional truth despite her obedience to her father. (Again see Romeo and Juliet.) She is caught in a rupture between form and reality.

This rupture worsens as time passes and as men come and go between the battles of their war. One rational note, wry because so much around it is conventionally irrational, is struck by the Comte de Chabannes, a middle-aged man who has withdrawn from the war after too much experience of it. He is asked by Montpensier to stay with Marie while the husband goes off again to fight. Chabannes is to tutor the princess. He tutors, and one of the film’s tender moments—there aren’t many—occurs when, busy with some plants while she is reading, he states calmly that he has fallen in love with her. It is no kind of physical advance: it is simply an avowal of truth that he feels he must offer because he has no intent of doing anything about it and because he wants to honor her and himself by stating it. She acknowledges it exactly as such.

But complications are stirred by Marie’s continuing passion for Guise, by the recurring war, by the frequent commiserations between Marie and her women friends about their status as chattel. Tavernier makes his film pulse along with gravity and grace. He is helped in great measure by elements that we knew beforehand would be present—the sumptuous costumes by Caroline de Vivaise and the breathtaking camerawork by Tavernier’s regular, Bruno de Keyzer. The score by Philippe Sarde is perfect, continually teasing, especially when the drums mutter.

There is one problematic aspect to the production, one that is not actively injurious but that keeps it this side of perfection—the cast. Lambert Wilson, who benefited Of Gods and Men as the abbot, is again splendidly quiet as Chabannes. But Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Gaspard Ulliel as Montpensier and Guise are credible without being much more. Where we can really wish for engrossing depth is in Mélanie Thierry’s Marie. Thierry is beautiful, with a subtly sensual face, but her performance never quite reaches the simmering hell of frustrated desire, of social peonage, that we hear about.

Still, The Princess of Montpensier proves again that Tavernier is a master, partly because his mastery extends to sustaining his work without quite the people he needs. Yes, the young Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau would have been preferable, but let us take a hint from the tutoring of the film’s Chabannes and luxuriate in what we are lucky enough to have.

A French film called Queen to Play is warm. As soon as the general shape is set, we know how it must end or it would not have been made; but because of its immediate enjoyability, we anticipate that fulfillment—and there are certainly surprises along the way. For basic pleasure, there is the scenery. The film takes place in Corsica, and we see some magnificent beauty. (What a fool Napoleon was to leave.)

But the very first thing we see is an alarm clock being turned off at 4:58. Hélène, trim and attractive in her forties, is a chambermaid in a hotel. She is married and has a teenage daughter. After a quick breakfast, she bicycles off to work. She knocks on the door of a room in the hotel and, after no response, goes in and starts to make the really rumpled bed. Then she sees, with apologies, a young couple sitting at a table on the terrace, caressing each other as, of all things, they play chess. Thus Hélène’s introduction to the game, as this turns out to be, is touched with eros.

She is a formally uneducated but intelligent woman. After that terrace glimpse, she gets her husband an electronic chess set for his birthday. He, a sign painter, though grateful for the gift, is not much interested. But Hélène has another job besides the hotel: she is housemaid for an eremitic doctor in his fifties, a foreigner, and one day she discovers a chess set in his house.

And one day he discovers her looking at the set. She presumes to ask him if he will play a game with her (she has been studying electronically at home); he declines, then is taken by her very question. Eventually they play, and she shows enough signs of promise that he plays with her again. He asks her what brought on this chess interest in her, and she says, “I don’t know.” This in its way has truth in it. Eros may have started it, but she has no such designs with the doctor, and she is continually finding out from chess itself why she is interested in it. Sex and chess divide. Sex may have led her to chess, but amour stays with her husband. Amid a different set of attractions, she plays chess with the doctor. (Even though the husband for a time suspects otherwise.)

The refined, close yet restrained mood of these chess games makes the scenes between her and the doctor unusually complex and fascinating. He is a widower, intellectual, gnomic, somewhat brusque—knowledgeable about chess and people. She is attractive, impressed, perfectly situated to become his mistress. But this never happens. The games they play are their relationship.

In time she becomes skillful enough to enter a local tournament. Every moment of the picture continues to be engaging, including the games with other people, but the scenes between Hélène and the doctor are what give the picture its distinction—even its peculiar pathos. Superfluously, he is given a serious illness, which he never discusses, but it is not this fact that restrains him with Hélène. It is a larger pathos—his vision of the two of them in the universe. And from her vantage point she agrees, though not in the same manner.

The screenplay was drawn from a Bertina Henrichs novel by the director Caroline Bottaro and by Caroline Maly and Jeanne Le Guillou. This is Bottaro’s first picture, and except for some hand-held moments that scratch the smooth fabric of the film, she shows composure and design. She is particularly successful with her two leading actors, Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline.

Bonnaire, still cherished from her performance in Varda’s Vagabond in 1985, and still lovely, has an unostentatious range. She is not an exhibitionistic actor: we suddenly realize that she is awestruck or is overjoyed or is lost in thought. She is comfortingly delightful. The doctor is played by the American actor Kevin Kline, who may have an accent in French but simply flows along. (His only lines in English are quoted from Blake.) Kline, bearded, taciturn, careful, perceptive, is the perfect partner for Bonnaire. He sometimes bosses her, but he never bullies her even when he is impatient, and she, coming out of the shell, as it were, values this. Their scenes are little treasures: the rest of the film is their pleasant setting.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the April 28, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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