The Princess of Montpensier: A Fine French Western

The finest Western you'll see this year, The Princess of Montpensier is set in aristocratic 16th-century France, in the heat of Counter Reformation. Mélanie Thierry's father barters her for the titular title, marrying her off to Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet's shy, pained prince—instead of her heart's first choice, Gaspard Ulliel's Duke de Guise. De Guise keeps chasing after the wedded princess, along with—for reasons requiring no explanation to anyone who's ever seen Thierry—the Duke d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and the film's calm center, the philosopher-warrior Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who has retired from an active role in the world after a campaigning tragedy. The Wars of Religion provide this boudoir-and-battlefield film's other front: Director Bertrand Tavernier applies athletic Steadicam to filthy melees and crossed dueling swords, conveying the heft of steel and crush of close combat. The action is remarkable also for its revelation of character and moral dimension—qualities learned from American horse operas by Tavernier. The setting always serves the performers rather than vice versa—though the film is also greatly enhanced by the costuming, the rugged French countryside photographed in outdoor-adventure CinemaScope and Philippe Sarde's baroque-tribal score, its martial and romantic poles matching a tale of love (corrupted) and war (pointless).

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