Issue 6 May 2011
La Princesse de Montpensier
Love and war and love as war come together in Bertrand Tavernier’s stunning adaptation of “La princesse de Montpensier,” a short story by Mme de Lafayette set during the Wars of Religion. The violence of the battlefield, magnificently depicted, is replicated in the violent passions that the beautiful princess arouses and feels herself. Whereas Mme de Lafayette wrote a terse morality tale, warning both of the torments and evanescence of love, Tavernier expands it to the broader canvas of aristocratic culture, one in which contractual marriages and the demands of war force young men and women to grow up fast. Survival depends on overcoming temptation and developing inner strength. Taking his cue from Mme de Lafayette, Tavernier shows how beauty and renown play foul with such demands. In Tavernier’s telling, women are the greater victims, but men too labor under their own constraints, both in emotional intimacy and savage violence. Our reviewer believes that Tavernier has replaced Mme de Lafayette’s moral dilemmas with a banal tale of seduction, but perhaps the film-maker simply sees the sixteenth century as blind to nuance. Tavernier deems the original story essentially anachronistic, even ahistorical; is he guilty of the same thing, or worse? The film’s combination of modern and historicizing sensibilities that our reviewer finds perplexing can be used to stimulate discussions of aristocratic values, gender roles, and the contradictory demands of war, love, and duty.
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Dueling had no set rules in the sixteenth century, Tavernier informs us in his commentary to La princesse de Montpensier. The Duellists and Tomorrow at Dawn, the one set during the Napoleonic Wars and the second in modern-day France among Napoleonic re-enactors, are firmly ensconced within the codes of honor that came to regulate such encounters. Against the real, gruesome and uncontrollable violence of warfare, men were able to settle their real or imagined grievances according to a set scenario whose outcome, of course, remained uncertain. The escalating cycle of violence between these combatants, like that among nations, had to end somehow. Both films, although set in different eras, address this question and ask us to think about our atavistic impulses and how past and present cultures handle them. In doing so, the films take us beyond the Napoleonic era to engage students on multiple levels and stimulate broad-ranging discussions, ones that could cover anything from historical accuracy to role playing video games.
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Louis XIV’s Court
Life at the court of Louis XIV has never really gone out of fashion. Apart from public interest, historians continue to debate its significance in defining the nature of French absolutism. Norbert Elias’s interpretation of the Sun King’s court was at the heart of The Civilizing Process, one of the most influential works of cultural history ever published. Filmmakers, too, have been attracted by its interpretive possibilities. The two films reviewed here nicely capture one of the central aspects of Louis XIV’s court – the tension between public and private. Although both approach the issue by focusing on a close associate of the king, their perspectives could hardly be more different. The spectacular Le roi danse (The King is Dancing) uses the life of the court composer of ballets, Gianbattista Lully, to showcase how the young Louis used lavish cultural displays to enhance his royal prestige. In contrast, L’Allee du roi (The King’s Way) reveals intimate aspects of Louis’s private life by tracing the trajectory of Constant d’Aubigné from genteel provincial poverty through elevation to the Marquise de Maintenon and on to her morganatic marriage to the aging king, an event that was never admitted publicly. As our reviewers duly note, however, both are rather narrow, even distorted visions. If only more political films were released with English subtitles, notably Louis, enfant roi (1996) with its focus on the Fronde, then students could begin putting public and private aspects of Louis XIV’s court into their larger political context.
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