Sometimes veteran directors make slower, more deliberate films as they get older, but there’s nothing draggy about Bertrand Tavernier’s historical drama The Princess Of Montpensier. Adapted by 69-year-old Tavernier and screenwriter Jean Cosmos from Madame de La Fayette’s 1662 novella, Princess stars Mélanie Thierry as a much-desired heiress who’s studying for her introduction at court with the help of principled count Lambert Wilson, while her husband (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and her lover (Gaspard Ulliel) fight in the raging Catholic/Protestant wars of the late 1500s. Wilson worries about the his charge’s loyalty, but even more, he worries about the future of a country led by aristocrats as unprepared and impulsively romantic as Thierry. And yet he can’t deny his attraction to her, and as the teacher circles his student—joined by the equally lustful Leprince-Ringuet, Ulliel, and France’s future king, played by Raphaël Personnaz—Tavernier turns a tale of courtly duty and manners into a tense, twisty drama.
The Princess Of Montpensier features bloody battles, and bitter swordfights in palace courtyards. And yet its most gripping scenes are smaller: Thierry and Leprince-Ringuet preparing for their wedding night while their family sits around the bed to witness the consummation, Thierry standing on a hill above the peasants to hear the war news from a traveling peddler, Wilson explaining to Thierry her responsibility to portion a hog for the locals, and dozens of other little details about 16th-century life that Tavernier and Cosmos imbue with charged meaning. The Princess Of Montpensier gets a little too mired in knowing looks and outsized outrage in its third act, but throughout, it effectively dramatizes how emotions interfere with obligation, and how these characters fall back on their social positions when they’re unsure how to proceed. The royals distrust Wilson as a Huguenot, but they adhere to his belief that stars must keep their place in the celestial hierarchy.