Less than enchanted
BACK IN THE 1960s, directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer formed the nouvelle vague partly as a reaction against the staid French cinemas they described as “le cinéma de papa”. It hasn’t gone away, you know.
Bertrand Tavernier, a beloved film-maker, born a decade or so after most of the new wave directors, has, with this historical drama, delivered an undeniably handsome piece of work. It’s a shame it’s just that teeny bit dull.
Taken from a story by Madame de La Fayette, the film concerns a princess (Mélanie Thierry) who, during the 16th-century conflict between Huguenots and Catholics, is forced to marry a man she does not love. At first she feels able to adapt to the arrangement. When, however, her previous admirer (Gaspard Ulliel), a dashing war hero, drops by her chateau, she realises that she still has feelings for the blade. Meanwhile, a Protestant turncoat, who is acting as her tutor, tries – despite also being besotted with the princess – to calm everyone down.
La Princesse de Montpensier does have its fair share of feisty swordfights and, carried off with much gusto, those sequences suggest that Tavernier could make a very good Dumas adaptation if he wanted. But his interest here is more in verisimilitude. The film is thick with research: every scene is stuffed with authentic gestures, convincing costumes and believably eccentric social conventions. Trying to read the characters’ motivations from beneath the fug of contemporaneous manners proves to be a diverting challenge. Emotions seems all the more convincing when they break free.
Unfortunately too much of The Princess of Montpensier is taken up with intricate conversations in gloomy corridors and on gloomier staircases. The picture also suffers from the personality vacuum at its heart. Thierry speaks her lines clearly and carries herself with grace, but, God bless her, she has about as much charisma as a bag of wet cabbages. There must have been more interesting women to fight wars over.
Still, as one might expect from Tavernier, this is a classy production with a sumptuous sheen to it. Papa will get on quite nicely with it. SLOGANS AHOY. “AIDS tool for killing blacks.” “strange thing Hollywood Jews invented it.” “nocrime, noblood.” Hitler’s conquest of France is saluted as “a great day for Indochina”. With subtitles this mangled and obscure, it can only be a post-millennium Godard joint.
Any attempts to decipher Film Socialisme are doomed to failure and accusations of treacherous counter-revolutionary thinking. Presented as a symphony in three movements, the veteran director’s latest essay offers a discordant, defiantly post-Maoist view of history.
An extended opening sequence set on a cruise ship – standing in for Europe, get it? – features Patti Smith, garbled observations on US imperialism and an itinerary that takes in Egypt, Odessa, Hellas, Naples, Barcelona and Palestine; Godard was never going to favour the word ‘Israel’.
There’s more. Philosopher Alain Badiou delivers a lecture on geometry to an empty ballroom. Children question parents on the meanings of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. LOL cats sing. Copyright is attacked as “Not Fair”. A girl with a llama reads Balzac at a petrol station. Clocks appear and reappear. So does a parrot.
If the imagery wasn’t quite discombobulating enough, a car crash of styles that runs from the sublimely cinematic to scratchy, subnormal mobile phone footage ought to do the trick. Godard’s own “Navajo English” subtitles (“fatherblood!”) add to the sensation that we’re trapped in brainwashing sequences of A Clockwork Orange and The Parallax View.
At 80, Godard is apparently still capable of lobbing a Molotov our way. A clanging situationist sideshow, Film Socialisme wants to get past cinema and history and language and image and even Godard. Freed from the relative modernist constraints that govern Finnegan’s Wake or, for that matter, the director’s own milieu, there’s nothing here for the suspiciously bourgeois ordered mind to hang on to.
There are vague and disquieting leanings toward One World government thinking and a misjudged fascination with Judaism – “Goldberg” means “gold mountain”, we’re told. But it just wouldn’t be Godard if it didn’t angry up the blood.
Relevant and outmoded, reactionary and revolutionary, Film Socialisme is all that the case may be. And it still makes more sense than the last one.
Beauty and the blade