It hasn’t escaped my attention that the week’s big release, and the one which is really most in need of some serious cinematic consideration/deconstruction/criticism, is the final film in the Harry Potter franchise. Well, that will have to wait for next week. The general ambivalence I have harboured towards this series from its start ten years ago has simply nullified any impulse I may have had to rush out and see it in the opening week. So you’ll just have to hold on to see what my final thoughts on that particular film series are. In the meantime, I’m going to talk about a release from last week which got trampled upon in the general cinema-going consciousness due to the dominant presence of Malick’s latest opus, which let’s face it we could spend the entirety of the rest of 2011 trying to come to some conclusions about.
What I’d like to talk about this week is Bertrand Tavernier’s “The Princess of Montpensier,” and this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma because it was probably the most apathetic viewing experience I’ve had so far this year. It left me quite cold and, more disturbingly in the immediate future, utterly lost for meaningful things to say about it. The naïve predictability of the film’s narrative combined with typical, almost televisual, treatment of the costume drama genre added up to a cinematic work which was not merely grossly unsatisfying, but profoundly dull and uninvolving.
There are only two aspects to the film worth covering in any great depth (three if you want to dwell upon the fact that Lambert Wilson is probably the coolest presence in French cinema at the moment). The first is something I don’t want to pontificate too much about, as it relates to my digressions a couple of weeks ago in relation to “A Separation:” namely gender consideration in film. In this case, Tavernier imbues his story with an overtly feminist concern missing from the ambiguous duality of the excellent Iranian drama. The plot to “The Princess of Montpensier” is ploddingly standard in that the eponymous radiant, almost ethereal teenage girl is entered into a marriage of convenience with a Prince, yet brings down social and moral ruination upon her head when she is unable to suppress her carnal, animalistic yet infantile amorous affections for her true love, the battle-scarred soldier Henri. Yet Tavernier’s focus is upon the society which has callously degraded the status of the affluent young woman to the point where she is nothing more than a possession and a bargaining tool. So completely subjective is she to the will of a patriarchal society, the inherent folly of which is underlined by the on-going Catholic-Huguenot war at which Lambert Wilson (he’s so cool) manifests his disgust through desertion and the permanent sheathing of his arms, that the Princess has no-one to confide in and nowhere from which to derive solace. Her mother agrees completely with her father’s wishes despite acknowledging in a bitterly ironic one-liner that she was entered into a similarly unhappy marriage of convenience, and even when she is aided in her plight by Lambert Wilson (he’s so cool) it is with the later proviso, written in a posthumously delivered letter from Wilson, that although it is her subversive right to pursue her passion it will be her downfall. So it proves, with the lingering final shot illuminating what it has cost the Princess to reject her husband, her social favour and her providential wealth for one night with the ultimately inconstant social climber Henri: she is left at the grave of Lambert Wilson (he’s so cool) looking pale and mournful in the snow, a stark visual constant to the redly flushed face and giddy smile she wears in scenes of happier times in sunny French countryside. Yet is she really so worse off, when her loss of virginity had to presided over by a small crowd of onlookers to ensure her marriage of convenience is adequately consummated, a cloth on which lies a small blot of vaginal blood being presented immediately after her painful penetration to her father, who is absently playing chess with the groom’s father in an adjacent room? This feminist social critique of the role of women in a constrictive and emotionally ignorant historical society would work were it not for how misjudged the three central players are in Tavernier’s execution of the drama. Henri is so obviously an irresponsible and sexually volatile aggressor aspiring towards personal advancement that beyond his superficial good looks, which are themselves mocked by prominent battle scars, there is little believable appeal in him, and the Prince’s very weakness of personality and moping, subdued and envious demeanour is so pitiable that we feel not the frustrations of the Princess’ loveless marriage to him, but rather sympathy for the downtrodden Prince himself. As for the Princess, the feminist appeal of the creations in Jane Austen lies in their savagely sharp intellect and resultant informed critique of what society expects of them: the Princess, on the other hand, has to be schooled in poetry (with which her appreciation is shallow), writing and politics, yet never overcomes her initial naivety to embody a literate counter-cultural argument in her taboo transgressions.
The second thing that struck me about the film was how staid and unspectacularly it treated the period drama genre. Aside from some quite excellent camerawork which effectively employs long takes, tracking shots and picturesque imagery to capture the paradoxical beauty of the backdrop to the central turmoil of confused ideological religious conflict and sexual disobedience, the film is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from any sub-standard British television costume drama. The bodice-ripper plays to British sensibilities associated with our literary and historical canon, and since television drama makers have a vast collection of relevant costumes and indeed narratives available for regurgitation UK audiences are simply too used to this treatment of historical drama material for the film to mark itself as being anything particularly special. Some stylistic flourishes aside, Tavernier’s direction isn’t unique or ambitious enough to overcome this considerable hurdle. To my mind, the greatest cinematic costume drama based upon a classic of historical literature in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” for the simple reason that Kubrick refutes traditional modes of visualising this period on screen. Instead of attempting to recreate a glossy yet vaguely authentic historical avatar in the period setting of the film, Kubrick instead heavily researched the portraiture and fine art of the period and visually interpreted the diegesis according to this art work. Not only does this precipitate a remarkable usage of natural and candle light, make-up and costumes but it also sees Kubrick use the visual to enforce the metaphorical social consciousness of the work. He reduces his characters to painted figures, as helpless to express themselves freely and transgress the boundaries of social conduct as a painted man is to step out of the frame and into reality, and in so doing offers a unique commentary upon the hypocrisy of a stifling and unjust social emphasis of thoughtless decorum to a flawed code. Tavernier would have done well to heed the lessons of Kubrick here.
I can’t help but wonder, however, whether my mystified and underwhelmed reception of this film is based less upon the lack of merits of what is ultimately a perfectly solid piece of craftsmanship and more upon an antiquated British tendency to bash the French. To put that uncharacteristically nationalist statement into context, I have always been hugely underwhelmed by French cinema and as a self-professed cinephile this has always troubled me. I feel like I should like French cinema more: the nation after all not only invented the cinema itself, but also the love of cinema and through “Cahiers du Cinema” the first great foundation of a serious critical canon for the art form. Yet in terms of continental cinema I derive far more from the early montage techniques pioneered in Russian cinema, from the innovative aesthetic of German Expressionism, and from the deeply dramatic humanism of Italian Neo-Realism, and my unabashed admiration of classic Hollywood movies seems to put me at odds with much French thinking, even if Bazin championed the odd one or two studio directors. Moreover, I can never quite get along with the internationally revered French filmmakers’ work: I’ve already gone on record about my bewildering alienation when faced with the oeuvre of the uber-pretentious Jean-Luc Godard, yet I am similarly left cold and empty by Truffaut, Varda and Rohmer. I appreciate their importance, but I wish their films were more engaging as pieces of drama rather than self-consciously cerebral considerations of increasingly obscure titbits of cod-philosophy. I fare better with Renoir, but in his films there is theatricality and grandiose folly that seems obtusely un-cinematic. He was a great dramatist, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling him a great filmmaker, and the differentiation between the two is an important one. Furthermore, in other countries a great movement is followed by a new movement with regard to practitioners of the form, a sense of bold rebellion against the excellent work which immediately preceded the present climate. For example, after Neo-Realism came Fellini, after Fellini came Giallo, and so on. What came after the French New Wave? Louis Malle has his moments, particularly the great “Au Revoir les Enfants,” but a great post-Nouvelle Vague auteur? It’s the same with Tavernier: why answer the audacity of Godard, Truffaut et al with conservative classicism? My personal favourite French filmmaker is Jacques Tati, yet the fact that he is also an idiosyncratic comedian pursuing his own style and comic vision in a way sets him aside from prevailing filmmaking climates.
I want to like French cinema in the same way that I want to like Tavernier’s film: the aims of both are admirable and of superficial high quality, but I can never ignore the void they leave me with, a void left by unfulfilled expectations and an unsatisfactory level of intellectual and emotional stimulation. Of course, this crisis of cinephilia will be completely forgotten next week when I start moaning about some wizards.