07 September, 2010
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
The Montreal World Film Festival comes to a close this evening with the North American Premiere of THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER, the latest film from celebrated French director Bertrand Tavernier. The film will screen following the announcement of the Festival awards at the Theatre Maisonneuve, a spectacular concert hall that is the Festival’s most luxurious screening venue. The lavish historical epic is set in France in the mid sixteenth century, when the religious wars between Catholics and Protest Huguenots created endless opportunities for intrigue, passion and constantly shifting alliances and loyalties.
The film centers on the beautiful young aristocrat Marie de Mezieres (played by the gorgeous Melanie Thierry) whose father has promised her hand in marriage to the Prince of Montpensier. However, the tempestuous bride-to-be is in love with Henri de Guise, one of the kingdom’s most intrepid heroes. The Prince takes Marie back to his chateau, where she is tutored by Chabannes, a Protestant, who soon falls in love with the young woman. When Henri arrives at the chateau along with the Duke d’Anjou, the heir to the throne, a passion play of extreme emotions is set into gear. The young noblewoman is torn between passion, duty and ambition, each quality personified by the three different men in her life.
This titanic battle of the will and the flesh is emboldened by the gorgeous art direction and costume design that makes the story a sumptuous feast for the eyes. It is indeed a compliment to say that the film is a Renaissance painting come to life. Like its heroine, director Bertrand Tavernier’s visitation to 16th century France has both beauty and brains and offers a portrait of Renaissance life that is vivid and enthralling. Much more than a costume epic, the film is a compelling drama and a vivid exploration of the extremes of the battle of the sexes that still has resonance in our modern times. The director elicits strong performances from his sensational cast, which includes also includes Lambert Wilson, Gaspard Ulliel, Raphael Personnaz and Gregoire Leprince-Ranguet.
For Tavernier, this film is a return to form after a rather spotty decade. His previous film, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, a thriller set in contemporary Louisiana and starring Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman and Peter Sarsgaard, is also screening in the Festival in the complete director’s cut. The film was edited without its director’s approval and released in a truncated version that bombed rather disastrously at the box office. Prior to that film, he only made two other films in the past decade, SAFE CONDUCT (2002) and HOLY LOLA (2004), both of which were not widely seen by international audiences.
However, Tavernier is still regarded in his native France and by discriminating critics and film buffs as a modern cinema master, the inheritor of the throne from the lions of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and 1960s. Tavernier broke into films as an assistant to legendary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville before scoring a major success with his debut film THE CLOCKMAKER OF SAINT-PAUL in 1974, featuring an award-winning performance by Philippe Noiret. He was most active in the two decades that followed with such highly regarded films as THE JUDGE AND THE ASSASSIN (1976), CLEAN SLATE (1981), A SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY (1984), BEATRICE (1987), DADDY NOSTALGIE (1990) and L’APPAT (1995).
A lifetime lover of jazz, he realized a personal dream of creating the perfect “jazz movie” in 1986 with ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT. He directed legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon in an Oscar-nominated performance, where he played the semi-autobiographical character of an American jazz musician in Paris. The film’s atmospheric lensing and the intense performance of Gordon in a role that was uncompromisingly similar to his drug and alcohol addicted self, made it a standout for its director, although it did not open the doors of Hollywood as many had expected.
Tavernier, who has also written several books on cinema, ultimately felt more comfortable working in France, where artists are venerated and celebrated for their overall contributions, rather than the limitations of recent box office performance. For the sturdy classic films of his most prolific period, he is regarded as one of the most passionate and accomplished filmmakers of his generation.