Less than en­chanted

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

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

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