10 July 2011

"Love Is the Most Awkward of Things"

Previously on The Valois... When Henri II of France died relatively young, in 1559, after a jousting accident, he left behind a number of young heirs under the guardianship of their mother, the ruthless Italian Catherine de Medici. Eldest son François II, first ill-fated husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeds to the throne at the age of 16 but, always a sickly child, dies just over a year later. Next comes Charles, who became Charles IX, and whose failures have recently been highlighted in the excellent novel, Charly 9. Charles was only ten when he became king and so the policies in his reign, most remembered for the Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Huguenots, were dominated by his mother. By 1567, a temporary truce has been reached and meanwhile, in Montpensier, the upcoming marriage of a beautiful young heiress is causing all sorts of trouble...

As I mentioned earlier, I had to revise my plan to see The Tree of Life this afternoon, thanks to an alarm clock SNAFU, and instead, I went to see La Princesse de Montpensier. This wasn't too big a sacrifice given that I'd been planning to watch the latter anyway. I studied a lot of 16th century French history at A-level and my A-level history coursework essay discussed whether Catherine de Medici was responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Huguenots in Paris on St Bartholomew's Day in 1572 (yes, she was, I found, and to a large extent). La Princesse de Montpensier, then, which opens in 1567, is bang in the middle of my period and I enjoyed it. It felt like a good old-fashioned historical romance/drama, that could easily have been made in the 1970s -- very refreshing after The Tudors with its dodgy accents, dodgier historical accuracy and sexed-up costumes.

The plot is a little complicated but can be boiled down to the fact that pretty much every male character is in love with Marie de Mézières, a wealthy heiress who becomes the eponymous Princess of Montpensier after her father forces her to marry the Prince, Philippe, a jealous, hurtful type, who bears a strong resemblance to Justin Timberlake. Marie had been hoping to marry Henri, Duke of Phwoar (not to be confused with Charles, Duke of Phwoar; this Duke is technically the Duke of Guise) -- her cousin and childhood playmate. The Guises, like the Howards and Staffords in Tudor England, were one of the most powerful families in France and were often thorns in the side of the Crown (on this occasion, Henri and his chums are helping the king, probably because his family are too busy trying to help Mary, Queen of Scots and cause problems for the English). Philippe/Justin is also a cousin of the DoP and of Marie. At least, they all seem to call each other cousin; wonder why these dynasties died out...

Anyway, other than being hot, the Duke of Phwoar is charming, passionate and a better fighter than Justin. The Duke of Anjou (who, at this point, is the man who would become Henri III and, at this point, is being wooed by Elizabeth I of England, who is about 20 years his senior), who is the main representative of the royal family in this film, is very happy with the DoP's fighting skillz. Justin, meanwhile, doesn't do a great deal to help but he does leave his new wife, who only grudgingly allows him to have his way with her on their well-attended wedding night, alone in his country chateau with only his buddy and former teacher, the Comte de Chabannes, for company. The Comte was quite literally a Renaissance man: a polymath who is fluent in poetry, languages, herbal medicine, astronomy, fencing and seduction. Unlike Catherine de Medici, who we see later in the film as a kind of Mystic Meg figure arguing that two of the characters totes won't end up together because they're both Leos, the Comte thinks astrology is a load of crap.

And naturally, when he and Marie are left practically alone together for such a long time (perhaps two years, although the time scale of the movie is a little sketchy), he falls for her. I thought he was going to turn out to be her father -- her mother, when trying to persuade her to do her duty and marry Justin, says, "love is the most awkward of things," and I had wondered whether she herself had had an affair at some point -- but apparently, this wasn't the case. It certainly seemed like more of a paternal love or a love of friendship than one of passion, as seen with the DoP. The Comte has been in trouble with both the Catholics and the Huguenots after fighting for the latter but then deserting after feeling so ashamed for killing a pregnant woman. "How can people of the same faith and the same blood kill each other in the name of the same god?" he asks. All too easily, it seems...

Justin doesn't like Marie spending any time in the DoP's presence but somehow, the DoP "accidentally" manages to lead Anjou and his party onto the Montpensier estate. "Guess who's coming to dinner, JT?" Anjou, who is rumoured to have been gay or perhaps bisexual, is most noted in this film for his Jack Sparrow-like use of eyeliner, sparkly earring and appalling chat-up lines ("oh, I'm sorry I tripped. Your beauty was just too overwhelming"). Anjou, like everyone else in this film, has the hots for Marie too. He's also cross with the DoP for trying it on with his sister Marguerite and then ditching her, and so he tries to intervene when Marie eventually decides she wants to do something about her feelings for the DoP (and lack of feelings for Justin).

The course of true love definitely didn't run smoothly in 16th century France, however, and by the end of the film, there isn't much in the way of happiness, although Marie and the DoP do finally manage to get it on. The film, which is based on Madame de La Fayette's novel of the same name, was well-paced and, despite its run-time of 2h20, didn't feel too long. There was plenty of action and intrigue, a bit of battle and a bit of bodice-ripping, so all in all, a very good historical drama. There were some tongue-in-cheek and amusing moments too, amid the emo; when the DoP and Marie were talking about his sister's upcoming marriage to her father-in-law and trying to work out what relation they would be to each other, it almost felt like an episode of The OC.

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