Bertrand Tavernier (The Watchmaker of St. Paul, A Sunday in the Country) directed this well made film about women’s place in society in the 16th Century, about loyalty, about the minefield of alliances between the Royals of the European states, this latter complicated by Papal influence, about passion and practicality, about ‘the’ stars and our stars. All this with a backdrop of religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (French Huguenots) which raged on and off for forty years, starting with the First War of Religion (1562-3). Here we are at the end of The Second War of Religion (1567-68).
The Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), after a particularly upsetting bit of carnage at a rural farmhouse, decides he no longer has the stomach for war. Both deserter and traitor. As he is riding away toward home, he is waylaid by those who want to rob him and then string him up. By chance, his former star pupil, the Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) happens along and saves him. Chabannes accompanies the Prince back to the Montpensier castle where his father the Duke and the Marquis de Mézières are arranging for the Prince to marry Marie Mézières (Mélanie Thierry). Marie protests that she is in love with Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). The stage is now set for this well plotted tale that plays like a Shakespearean tragedy (especially when at one point Marie makes an assignation at a masked ball with someone who is not who she thinks he is).
Neither Henri nor Marie are happy with this turn of events, but Marie at reluctantly accedes to her father’s wishes.
The nuptials and what follows are interesting bits of social history. As the Prince takes his place in the marriage bed, Marie (now the Princesse de Montpensier) is stripped bare, her body washed by her hand-maidens and inspected by her father. Never heard of this before and it was a bit odd, I thought. Then the nuptial itself, as the fathers settle down to a game of chess outside the room of the marriage bed. As soon as there is a squeal from Marie, her hand-maiden rushes in to retrieve the piece of cloth underneath her, then rushes it out to the fathers. Blood! An intact virgin. Wonder what would have happened if there was no blood? There is another scene or two that would seem to indicate that there was no embarrassment about nudity as long as it was within the household.
Shortly after this, the Prince is called to war, and Charbannes is tasked to stay on to tutor to Marie for court. He finds her whip smart, willing to learn (those things she desires to learn) and he grows fond of her, eventually confessing his love, though his is many years her senior. Charbannes and Marie have several scenes together, and you can see Marie processing those things which Charbannes is teaching her. There is one scene of import that touches on a major theme – the stars and our fate or destiny. Marie and Charbannes discuss these things as they gaze upon the heavens.
And Marie rebels against her fate. She grasps the options that are really not realistically available to her with tragic consequences. But her choices were bold and brave, if perhaps rash and fateful. The film has an ending that is just lovely and perfect. Tavernier adapted the film from the novel published in 1866 by Madame de La Fayette.
And as for perfect, you won’t see better performances than those turned in by Mélanie Thierry and Lambert Wilson. This film took me by surprise.