La Princesse de Montpensier

Issue 6

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.

La Princesse de Montpensier 

Paul Cohen
University of Toronto

France recently became curiously distracted by remarks Nicholas Sarkozy made about The Princess of Cleves, a novel by Madame de Lafayette published anonymously in 1678 and now widely taught in French literature classes.  These remarks could be – and have been – parsed in any number of fascinating ways.  The debate they generated, aptly dubbed “the Princess of Cleves Affair,” is a peculiarly French form of the culture wars, one worth exploring in its own right.  You can read my take on it by clicking on the following link:  “Nicholas Sarkozy has an affaire with the Princess of Cleves.”[1]  It is thus remarkably timely for acclaimed director Bertrand Tavernier to adapt another of Madame de Lafayette’s works, a short story entitled the Story of the Princess of Montpensier (published anonymously in 1662), for the big screen.[2]  An important figure of French cinema, Tavernier has directed and written over thirty films.[3]  In this new film, which he co-wrote with Jean Cosmos and François-Olivier Rousseau, Tavernier directs a star-filled cast that includes Lambert Wilson and Mélanie Thierry.  For those like Tavernier who are committed to the notion that past works of literature speak to us today, the Affair pushes them to underscore the seventeenth-century writer’s contemporary relevance: hence the director’s affirmation that “this story … is very contemporary.”[4]  In the current Princess-of-Cleves moment, film adaptations of any of Madame de Lafayette’s works should command the interest of observers of French life in general, and teachers of French history or literature on the lookout for films to show students in particular.  Unfortunately, Tavernier’s work falls far short of its promise as literary adaptation, historical reconstruction, and quite simply as a film.  Understanding the reasons for its failure tells us a great deal about Madame de Lafayette’s story, the possibilities and risks of adapting works of literature, and the ways in which seventeenth-century French literature resonates in contemporary France.

Although much shorter than The Princess of Cleves, Madame de Lafayette’s Story of the Princess of Montpensier explores similar themes: the tensions opposing love, prudence, happiness, and marital and familial duty in the world of the sixteenth-century court and high aristocracy.  In 1563, with France engulfed in the Wars of Religion, a family descended from the House of Anjou has betrothed their beautiful young daughter, Marie de Mézières, to the cadet son of the powerful Guise family.  The elder brother Henri I duc de Guise (later leader of the ultra-Catholic cause) and Marie fall in love.  Wishing to frustrate Guise ambitions, the house of Bourbon convinces her family to marry her off to the prince of Montpensier, the descendant of a cadet Bourbon line.  Rather than pursue a marriage with the brother of the man she loves, Marie agrees to the Montpensier match, puts Guise out of her mind, and dutifully serves her husband.  Sent off to war, the Prince de Montpensier asks his closest friend, the Comte de Chabannes, to look after his young wife.  Marie develops a great fondness for the older Chabannes, who in turn falls in love with his charge.  Marie tells him of her past feelings for Guise (to Chabannes’ chagrin), he in turn reveals his feelings for her, and she forgives him his impudence.  One day the duc d’Anjou (the future king Henri III) and Guise, traveling together on campaign, chance upon Marie de Montpensier near her country estate.  Both Guise and Marie realize that they still love each other; Anjou, too, falls in love with her, and Guise must carefully conceal his own feelings to avoid jeopardizing his fortunes at court.  The story’s denouement unfolds when Marie uses Chabannes to arrange a private meeting with Guise.  Her husband enters her apartments by surprise, Chabannes engineers Guise’s escape, allowing himself to be discovered by the prince instead, and suffers banishment from the Montpensier household.  Chabannes travels to Paris, where he is killed during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Guise forgets Marie and falls in love with another woman; realizing the folly of her passion for the inconstant Guise and the consequent loss of her husband’s esteem, she falls ill and dies of grief.

Tavernier’s film departs from Madame de Lafayette’s story in numerous and fundamental ways.  Where her short text offers a bare narrative skeleton, the film provides detailed back-story.  We witness the painful consummation of Marie and Montpensier’s marriage.  Barely mentioned in the story, Marie’s father in the film is played as ignorant, shortsighted, violent towards his daughter, interested only in hunting and fattening the eels in his estate’s ponds.  The prince of Montpensier’s father is widowed in the course of the film, and remarries Henri’s sister Catherine de Guise.  Where Madame de Lafayette only invokes the Wars of Religion insofar as they directly shape her story – the prince, the duc de Guise, and the duc d’Anjou are repeatedly called away to war, and Chabannes finds death at the hands of the Catholic mob – the film devotes substantial screen-time to extended battle scenes (including the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), and its characters frequently speak about the war.  The most radical change to the story, however, concerns its denouement.  In the film, after the prince has spent his anger upon Chabannes and his wife, Marie seeks out Guise still hiding in the next room, and they make passionate love.  She then resolves to leave her husband definitively and take up with her lover.  But when she arrives in Blois to announce the happy news, Guise rejects her.  The film closes with Marie visiting Chabannes’ tomb in winter, her voice-over announcing that just as he had renounced war, she would renounce love.

Tavernier’s first objective is to tell a “modern” version of the story, albeit one still set in the sixteenth century.  Consider Chabannes, who displays a density he does not possess in the short story.  In his humanity, wisdom, and religious skepticism, he is a kind of Michel de Montaigne figure as understood by many modern readers.  The film opens with a battle scene in which Chabannes kills a pregnant woman in the heat of combat, a moment which he later describes as his “road to Damascus” when, grasping the absurdity of violence between people who believe in the same God, he turns away from war.  However, gender represents the most significant – and intriguing – area in which Tavernier modernizes the story.  The film works hard to portray Marie de Montpensier as a strong, independent woman.  She fights her marriage with Montpensier, and must be pushed into it by force.  She is hungry for knowledge, and insists that Chabannes (who had been the prince’s tutor) teach her astronomy, Latin and poetry and asks him controversial theological questions.  Her resolution to leave her husband to take up with Henri de Guise is a deafening declaration of female emancipation.

Tavernier’s second objective is to historicize the story. According to Tavernier, Madame de Lafayette invested her text with her own cultural sensibilities, that is, seventeenth-century values entirely out of phase with the century which she depicts.  Tavernier justifies his modifications as an exercise in historical excavation, an attempt to recover an authentic sixteenth-century historicity from an anachronism-riddled story. As he explained in an interview, his film does not have the princess die at the end, as in the story, which is a moralizing punishment.  “For me, it was necessary not to punish her: at the end of the narrative, after having lost everything, the Princess of Montpensier is … now free from all constraints … proud, because she didn’t capitulate.  I restored [sic] the moments of sex in those places where they had been self-censored by Madame de Lafayette.[5]  That a historical “truth” can be exhumed or “restored” from a work of fiction, represents a set of paradoxes which Tavernier does not elaborate on. Whether or not one accepts Tavernier’s historical narrative of a liberated sixteenth century giving way to a puritanical seventeenth century,[6] the project of juxtaposing Madame de Lafayette’s historical fiction with the sixteenth-century world it represents in order to reveal historical slippages is as ambitious as it is interesting.  This question would for example furnish a rich subject for scholarship and classroom discussion alike.

There is no doubt in the short story that Marie de Montpensier’s death is a punishment.[7] While Madame de Lafayette does not soft-pedal his “furious jealousy,”[8] within her story’s social and moral universe, the prince is in the right – he is entirely justified in watching over his family’s name and his wife’s honor.  The film on the other hand portrays his jealous rage as unreasonable, violent, and even unjust. We are clearly meant to sympathize with the princess of Montpensier, for it is she who is now in the right.  The trouble with this reversal of the moral scales is that Tavernier bases it on a fundamental misreading of the Princess of Montpensier.  In taking her short story to be a bowdlerized version of a freer, bawdier, less constrained sixteenth century, a priggish warning to adolescent girls of the dangers of sex, the director commits a major error of interpretation.  Madame de Lafayette’s subject is not sex, it is love.  Love’s victims oscillate between ecstatic happiness, despair, doubt, and jealousy, in a process which clouds judgment and can lead them to their destruction.  According to Madame de Lafayette, love’s inconstancy and the impossibility of ever truly possessing the person loved make the happiness promised by love a pure chimera, a fool’s gold.  Her fiction examines the necessarily destructive effects of love, incompatible with personal happiness, honor and social peace.

Lafayette’s stories describe a world of high aristocrats who are (almost) always under strict social and emotional control.  Their psychology and actions are constantly constrained by weighty gender expectations, the promotion of familial and sexual honor, and fidelity to their families’ larger interests.  They trace the struggles of individuals who find themselves subject to passions which incline them to transgress these expectations.  Love is an eminently dangerous emotion in this social environment, for it always comes into contradiction with the rules of the social game.  It is for this reason that dissimulation plays such an important role in her fiction.  Men and women’s interior lives, particularly when they develop romantic feelings for others, are a constant menace, and thus best kept under emotional lock and key.  To act on one’s passions, particularly if one is a woman, brings only disaster. The characters in Tavernier’s film, in contrast, wear their emotions on their sleeves.

Dissimulation leaves open the possibility for discovery; the imperative of self-control holds open the potential for an explosion of emotion, anger, or violence.  Both are absent from the movie’s universe.  With its characters endowed with static personalities, liberated from doubt and emotional turmoil, the film lacks any dynamic drawing the viewer forward. Part of the problem is that Tavernier has not gone far enough in transforming Madame de Lafayette’s story.  Too many traces of her text’s narrative architecture and moral economy still inhabit the film.  In the film, virtue hasn’t guided anyone’s actions, nor indeed is virtue even present as an operative category, making this a pointless gesture.  We are faced with a kind of archeological accretion of incompatible elements deposited from both the original text and Tavernier’s historicist-modernist vision.  A credible tale of female agency could have been told either by truly historicizing the action and taking seriously the options and constraints available to women in the sixteenth century, or by unmooring the story from its source text and historical context – but not both simultaneously. In the end, we are left with a film that is a pastiche of a period-costume historical epic, a bodice-ripping swashbuckler, a reverential adaptation of a literary classic, an auteur’s reinvention of a canonical text, a romantic tale of impossible love, a melodrama, and an exemplary feminist tale. A more interesting film could certainly have been made about unrequited love (or the absence of love) in early modern marriages.  But here, too many themes spoil the cinematic pot.

The film’s problems make it a poor choice for classroom use.  Its emphasis on the Religious Wars, with long battle scenes and extended conversations on the troubles, might have offered interesting possibilities for anchoring the story in its religious and political context.  But the almost complete absence of religion from the film (other than a brief glimpse of the prince and Marie’s wedding mass, and Chabannes’ pithy responses to Marie’s doctrinal queries) makes it impossible for viewers to make any sense of the conflict.  Indeed, in Tavernier’s film the Wars of Religion are simply an incomprehensible, senseless, bloody clash between fanatics – Chabannes alone sounds to us reasonable.  Likewise, the film offers few signposts and no explication to help viewers understand who important political players like Anjou, Guise, or Catherine de’ Medici (played somewhat incredibly as a meddling, astrology-obsessed Neapolitan mama) are.  For viewers unfamiliar with Madame de Lafayette’s story or the history of sixteenth-century France, the film’s historical dimension will probably be too confusing or obscure to be legible.

  1. This piece was written as part of the review for Fiction and Film for French Historians, issue 6, May 2011.
  2. The “Histoire de la Princesse de Montpensier” is included in Lafayette, La Princesse de Clèves et autres romans, ed. Bernard Pingaud (Paris: Folio Classique, 1972), pp. 41-74. It is now available in a “2 Euro” edition, Histoire de la princesse de Montpensier et autres nouvelles, ed., Martine Reid (Paris: Folio, 2009).  See Tavernier’s discussion of the film project in his forward to the published edition of his script Tavernier, and Madame de Lafayette, La Princesse de Montpensier. Un film de Bertrand Tavernier.  Suivi de la nouvelle de Madame de Lafayette (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).
  3. For a recent introduction to Tavernier’s career and work, see Jean-Dominique Nuttens, Bertrand Tavernier, Collection Les Grands cinéastes de notre temps (Rome: Gremese, 2009).
  4. Quoted in “La Princesse de Montpensier. Sortie sur grand écran le 3 novembre,” (n.d.), (consulted 24 May 2011).
  5. Guilhem Callard, “Entrevue avec Bertrand Tavernier,” Panorama Cinéma (14 February 2011), (consulted 22 May 2011).
  6. Tavernier frequently cites the popular historian Didier Le Fur, who served as the film’s historical consultant.  See also the interview with Le Fur which figures in the DVD version of the film.
  7. Lafayette, “Princesse de Montpensier,” p. 74: “Elle mouru en peu de jours, dans la fleur de son âge, une des plus belles princesses du monde et qui aurait été la plus heureuse, si la vertu et la prudence eussent conduit toutes ses actions.”
  8. Madame de Lafayette, “Princesse de Montpensier,” p. 51: “une jalousie si furieuse”.

Bertrand Tavernier, Director, La Princesse de Montpensier [The Princess of Montpensier] (2010) France/Color, Paradis Films/Studiocanal/France 2 Cinéma/France 3 Cinéma/Pandora Film Produktion. Running Time: 134 mins.

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