Why Bertrand Tavernier is not considered up there with the world’s greatest filmmakers is a mystery to me. It must have something to do with the vagaries of distribution, the absence of hype, the obtuseness of reviewers and audiences, perhaps even of festival directors and museum curators.
His oeuvre is varied and extensive, his scope prodigious and vision acute. Google him and you’ll get at least some sense of his achievement, which began spectacularly with The Clockmaker and has continued through his most recent offering, The Princess of Montpensier, for which, as usual, Tavernier collaborated on the screenplay.
The film is based on the first novel by Madame de La Fayette (1662), whose later La Princesse de Cleves (1678) is the first authentic French novel, a psychological masterpiece filmed more than once. Her initial fiction, La Princesse de Montpensier, though not quite so remarkable, provided Tavernier with a more than serviceable story for a major film.
In the history-film genre, Tavernier accomplishes something few if any directors have managed so well: shooting not just a plot, but also a sense of what ordinary life in a given period—in this case 17th-century France—was like. As in W. H. Auden’s famous poem about the Dutch painting of the fall of Icarus (which shows everyday life going on in other parts of the canvas), Tavernier gives us humdrum and humble activities behind or alongside of the main action, making that very action more embedded in reality, more believable.
Nor is Tavernier loath to repeat things that bear repetition, such as horses ridden by various riders at breakneck speed on diverse occasions that punctuate the film, having the same validity as reckless car rides running through movies about today’s life. It immerses us more thoroughly in the era in question.
Though this is not meant to be a movie review—and isn’t—some Tavernier strengths must be stressed. So the fine performances in even minor parts, though I will mention only one of the major ones: Lambert Wilson, splendid as the Comte de Chabannes, the Princess’s tutor in the remote castle to which her husband confined her, ostensibly as protection from the raging religious wars. Although noble and wise, circumspect in handling with philosophical detachment the Princess’s various involvements (or avoidance thereof) with aristocrats and royalty, Chabannes himself eventually succumbs to his pupil’s charms in heartbreakingly moving scenes.
Again, although this is a story of romantic passions, we get no gratuitous dabbling in sex. There is, remarkably, only one rather discreet bedroom scene, yet all that needs to be shown about the sundry amours is magisterially conveyed. And, as usual in Tavernier’s films, cinematography, editing, music, camera placement and movement are exemplarily managed. Best of all, though the director is clearly in constant charge, his control is not ostentatiously foisted on the viewer, but chastely subsumed by the action.
Tavernier has turned seventy, but The Princess of Montpensier is informed as much by youthful zest as by mature judgment. And though it is a work of fiction, we feel that no documentary could have conjured up historic reality with greater accuracy and suasion.
Speaking of princesses, here comes the wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, his commoner bride. Of course a royal wedding is of some interest, especially when the bride is not of royal or even blue blood—a pure case of romantic love rather than political expediency, more like a fairy tale in fact.
Even so, isn’t all this frantic American media coverage indicative of something beyond the obvious? Does it not mean that a democratic republic leaves its beneficiaries famished for something more regal? Does it not play out almost as soul-satisfyingly as the legend of King Copetua and the Beggar Maid? Is it not as if a Hollywood happy ending were turning real, the very thing that encourages hopefulness in the drabbest of lives? Not that we can all turn into Prince William or Kate Middleton, but that we live in a world in which, amid economic crises and fighting all over the map, romance of this kind is still possible?
I myself am fascinated by reading that Kate becomes empowered by marriage to choose whether to become princess or duchess. Princess is manifestly grander, but duchess allows for more freedom. This is the kind of dilemma dreams are made of—isn’t a current movie (which I haven’t seen) entitled Win Win?
Be it mentioned here that Englishwomen are not, by and large, noted for their comeliness. It took a great deal of questionable taste or stubborn make believe to consider Princess Di, let alone Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, pretty, to say nothing of beautiful. Conversely, Kate does look undeniably good.
So this is the new TV reality show, with American networks fiercely outbidding one another to engage photogenic Englishwomen capable of reporting on the royal wedding. If there is this much hullabaloo about their mere nuptials, just think what it will be like when the couple get lost somewhere in the jungle with no one around to rescue them except the television crew.