The Princess of Montpensier
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Screenplay by Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, Bertrand Tavernier
Starring Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Gregorie Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel

With its agreeable mixture of petty scheming, bedroom intrigue, and self-absorbed alpha males and the naive temptresses that love them, the French costume drama The Princess of Montpensier is perhaps best described as medieval pulp fiction.  Co-written and directed by veteran Gallic filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, the film is based on an almost 350-year-old story by Madame de la Fayette, the penname of a 17th century countess that published much of her work anonymously during her lifetime.

In its original form, this story of a love triangle between a lovely young woman and the two men that desire her—one of whom happens to be her husband—ran only a dozen or so pages.  The film version unfolds over a far more expansive 140 minutes at a pace that can generously be called leisurely.  But leisurely doesn’t mean boring and, in fact, The Princess of Montpensier is anything but boring.  Pokey and overly reserved at times perhaps, but never to the point where time seems to stand still as the EXIT sign at the front of the theater burns brighter and brighter.  On the contrary, the film draws you in with its formal rigor and measured storytelling, two qualities that are rare in most Hollywood studio product these days.

Set against the backdrop of the war between France’s Catholic and Protestant populations that dominated the latter half of the 16th century, The Princess of Montpensier stars Melanie Thierry as the title character, who begins her life as Marie de Mezieres, the only daughter of a wealthy marquis.  Her fortune and her beauty make her a prize for any upwardly aspiring nobleman, but she has her eye on only one individual—the swashbuckling soldier Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) who pursues her with the same ardor he displays on the battlefield.  It seems a solid match, until Marie’s father gets a better offer that gives her hand to Philippe, the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).

A seemingly kind and amiable chap, Philippe is well aware that he wouldn’t even be his new bride’s second choice for a husband and that knowledge chips away at his already fragile ego.  Heartsick over the loss of her true love, Marie nevertheless dedicates herself to being a good and virtuous wife, although her resolve is repeatedly tested by the jilted Henri’s regular appearances at her estate.  The other major character in this potentially explosive mix is Philippe’s mentor-turned-personal assistant the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a former footman in the Catholic army that walked away from the war after growing weary of killing his fellow man in the Lord’s name.  While his new employer is away at the front, the Comte acts as Marie’s tutor and guardian, but, like virtually every other man that enters the Princess’ orbit, he develops deeper feelings for her as well.

Unlike a lot of period pieces, The Princess of Montpensier doesn’t overindulge on recreating the pomp and pageantry of the distant past.  Despite its narrative sweep, this is a small, almost intimate film and feels all the more authentic as a result.  (In that way, it’s somewhat akin to Kelly Reichardt’s new Western, Meek’s Cutoff, which also successfully depicts history in miniature.)  The princess’ estate isn’t a grand castle filled with enormous halls and fine things, but rather a rundown rural outpost with only a handful of servants to tend the cramped rooms.  (It helps immeasurably that Tavernier was able to shoot the film on the grounds of an actual medieval castle.  In this country, we often have to rebuild our past for the big screen; many European countries are fortunate to have their history still standing.)  Even the battle scenes are made up of skirmishes between individual soldiers rather than Braveheart-style face-offs that pit two teeming armies against each other.  The cast follows suit, playing the heightened emotions their characters are wrestling with in a realistic way and largely avoiding the histrionics that could have accompanied the pulpy premise.  Too often–though, to be fair, sometimes with good reason–costume dramas are dismissed as being good for you rather than simply good.  By telling a story that’s both intellectually stimulating and genuinely entertaining, The Princess of Montpensier illustrates that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The Princess of Montpensier opens in limited release today and will be available on IFC’s VOD service starting April 20.