Horses and scenery and battles and costumes: That’s basically the essence of the French-language The Princess of Montpensier, an intended 16th-century bodice-ripper that writer-director Bertrand Tavernier adapted from a short story and turned into a 139-minute snoozer. Set in 1567 during the civil war between French Catholics and Protestant reformers, the film buries its romance in confused politics and its women in petticoats, all but snuffing out the passions that allegedly drive the story. The result is a turgid bore that can’t be saved by ornate outfits or its lead’s pretty pout.
The film begins with a gruesome battle, one in which our grown-up hero, Count Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), kills among others a pregnant woman. Disgusted with himself and the war in general, he deserts, but in the process reconnects with a former student, the prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Back at the castle, a father (Philippe Magnan) is negotiating a wedding between his already-betrothed daughter, Marie (Mélanie Thierry), and the prince. Marie loves neither the prince nor her intended, however; her heart belongs to her fiancé’s rakish brother, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). Mon dieu!
Little matter. Forced by her father to “submit,” Marie marries the prince and even convinces herself she’s happy and over Henri. (Which, for all the film’s running time, appears to happen overnight.) When the prince is called off to war, he leaves Marie in his teacher’s hands, asking Chabannes to school Marie in the arts. Alas, Chabannes falls in love with Marie, too, a crush that’s mentioned exactly twice at what are essentially the film’s bookends. Then Henri starts bumping into her again, and wouldn’t you guess that Marie hasn’t really quashed her feelings for him after all? Also lusting after her is the king’s brother, the Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), a dandy who is unrepentant in his flirtations with the prince’s wife.
Interrupting all the sexual tension are more battle scenes—and if you’re not familiar with the history of the period, Tavernier doesn’t do much to clue you in, making all the fighting a meaningless muddle that distracts from the plot’s three- (five?-)way love story. Also burying the plot is the death of Marie’s mother (an incident not shown, but mentioned after the fact) and her father’s subsequent marriage to her childhood friend. Because a legion of plotlines isn’t nearly enough, Tavernier overdecorates his dialogue, leaving many narrative question marks in the wake of the characters’ dizzying exchanges.
The film’s final nail is the princess herself. Thierry is inarguably fair and gorgeous. But she’s also cool, and you never quite believe in Marie’s fire for Henri or her unhappiness with the prince; this isn’t a girl you can imagine ripping her bodice for anyone. (Though one of the film’s most vivid scenes involves her wedding night, as a sizable audience watches a naked Marie get scrubbed down for consummation and waits for her moans and the prized bloodied sheet.) Tavenier’s portrait of 16th-century life is ultimately a paradox: One that’s spot-on in big-picture details but a mess when you get up close, at once overstuffed and not nearly meaty enough.
The Bang Bang Club Directed by Steven Silver
Chaos also reigns in The Bang Bang Club, Steven Silver’s based-on-true-events story of four combat photographers that opens with a very detailed explanation of what was going on in South Africa between 1990 and 1994. Silver then proceeds to illustrate it with scene after scene of unspecified black multitudes yelling and killing each other. The pandemonium serves not to elucidate the politics of the era and its attendant tragedies but as a mere noisy backdrop for a group of white show-offs.
The hot-dogging photogs include the initial trio of the so-called “Bang Bang Club,” the arrogant Ken (Frank Rautenbach), self-destructive Kevin (Taylor Kitsch), and nondescript João (Neels Van Jaarsveld), as well as lucky newcomer Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe). Greg wins a Pulitzer about a minute after he’s accepted by—that is, can follow the action with—the club, and his friends are all jazzed for him, including newspaper photography editor and Greg’s instant new love, Robin (Malin Akerman). Not everyone’s celebrating, though: The film’s got to have a deeper point, and what better way to express it than to have one single (and uncredited) character harass Greg repeatedly for being a Caucasian taking advantage of African grief? There’s also a criminal allegation, though this news is delivered only in a surprising line: “I win this prize and the ANC accuses me of being a state spy?” Uh, it did?
Politics aside, one imagines that illuminating the dangers of the job is also on Silver’s agenda, but he only partially accomplishes the task. More often the guys are shown being frowny-faced at the brutality going on in front of them or, sickeningly, getting a high off of their own brushes with death. This shoddy approach to the subject couldn’t have gotten a worse release date, little over a week after the real-life deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, photographers who were killed covering the unrest in Libya.
With barbecues and nightclubs as much a part of this story as the snappers’ work lives, it’s difficult to care about these characters, particularly with B-listers such as Phillippe and Akerman leading a cast of no-names. (At least—shockingly—Phillippe’s South African accent is consistent, if a bit too English-sounding. Akerman’s just fades in and out.) Greg isn’t the only lauded photographer of the group: Kevin also wins a Pulitzer, but, in line with his one-note characterization, he’s nearly too fucked up on drugs to understand it.
There are a couple of poignant moments, including a press conference in which Kevin is asked if he’d helped the starving girl whose photograph nabbed him notoriety. But more often the film’s politically minded and morally probing framework is marred by its portrayal of veritable frat boys goofing off.