Love, Death and the Three Henries

May 26, 2011

The other night I went to see Bertrand Tavernier’s new film, The Princess of Montpensier. In general I’m not that much of a film buff, but I’ve been through phases of it. In particular, at a certain point back in the last millennium  I had a cluster of friends with whom I regularly went to see all the latest French stuff, and it was just then that Tavernier’s first big hit The Clockmaker came out. So when his name began appearing again  in the papers a couple of weeks ago, it rang a bell and I decided to take a look and see what he’s been up to lately.

Also,  as my friends know, I am an avid reader of history, and Princess is nothing if not deeply rooted in French history. Based on a story by Mme de La Fayette, better known for another Princess novel, the film takes place during the first part of the 16th century Wars of Religion and climaxes with the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. So there’s plenty of blood and guts and snazzy swordplay in it; but it’s fundamentally a love story, about a young woman with too many men in her life. Four, to be exact… The historical details aren’t spelled out in too great detail; I think the original French audience was expected to know the basic outlines and to realize, for example, that two of the heroine’s suitors were among the Three Henries whose bitter rivalry was to dominate the final phase of the Wars two decades later.  I certainly felt that knowing things like this added a certain flavor to my experience of certain scenes; but the important stuff I think was self-explanatory.

I liked the fact that all four of the men who professed an interest in the poor Princess were very clearly delineated: the young husband  preoccupied with propriety, honor and family duty; the passionate Guise with his scarred face; the King’s brother Anjou (later to reign as Henri III after a brief stint as King of Poland) for whom it all seems to be very much a game; and the older, sadder, ineffectively wiser Chabannes. And her father-in-law with his incessant blather about food and wine…

Given my interests I always pay attention to how historical fiction tweaks the known facts to make a better story. I’m no purist, Macbeth’s 17-year reign which Shakespeare somehow bypasses doesn’t bother me at all, but I like to notice the details.  The love plot seems to have been created by Mme de La Fayette, but all the main characters are clearly historical except perhaps for Chabannes. I cannot imagine why Tavernier saw fit to change the given names of the Montpensier couple from François and Renée to Philippe and Marie… More interesting is the fact that  in  real life the Princess, though she did in fact die young, lived long enough to bear a son to her Prince; Mme de La Fayette wants none of this, and simply has her die in despair at Guise’s final betrayal; whereas Tavernier has a softer ending, with the Princess alive, finally renouncing love and passion and expecting to die soon. And the last straw for her in the movie is Guise’s marriage to Catherine of Cleves; in real life this had already happened several years earlier, and in Mme de La F.’s version his abandonment of the Princess is marked by an affair with another woman entirely. I think Tavernier wanted him to appear more noble than that…

Anyway, a most enjoyable evening, and I’d recommend the film to anyone.

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2 Responses to “Love, Death and the Three Henries”

  1. Syl Says:

    Thank you for clearing that up, it all sound so familiar but I couldn’t quite put it together. Just watched it on netflix.


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