Spring Arts Guide: Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier and More

Plus 'Cruel Cinema,' Rudy Wurlitzer, and other spring film picks

I very much believe the statement by Faulkner when he says, ‘The past is not dead. It’s not even past,’ ” notes Bertrand Tavernier, the veteran French filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer. The quote indirectly sums up the refreshingly contemporary-feeling approach he took with his new movie, The Princess of Montpensier—a terrific 16th-century romance set amid the aristocracy during the war between the Catholics and Huguenots.

Adapted from Madame de la Fayette’s classic novel, the film concerns a nubile, wealthy heiress (Mélanie Thierry) who loves a rugged hothead from the wrong clan (Gaspard Ulliel), but is forced by her father to marry another prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), leaving her to dwell on the too-modern desire for free will—defiantly bucking against the rigid traditions of her breed. If it weren’t for the royalty and couture, though, the love triangle wouldn’t look vastly different from the dramas of today’s youth culture.

“The real ambition of the film was trying to get the sense of time and place, to get the behavior right, but not film it like it was historical,” Tavernier reveals. “Very often, because a film is in costume, people have a kind of ponderous walk. You have an impression that the scene should be sullen. No! Those people were young. They were running. They were impatient. The camera has to move fast. They were used to wearing the costumes, so for them they are not heavy.”

As the nimble-witted 69-year-old talks about the technical undertakings on display—from the elaborate wartime action sequences and horse stunts to the visual importance of having actors physically exert themselves by filming on craggy terrain—he namedrops American filmmakers who inspired him within the Western genre, including Raoul Walsh and Delmer Daves. A well-known cineaste with an encyclopedic brain for obscure and classic cinema, Tavernier lights up when it’s brought to his attention that another wartime film, Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 propaganda oddity Went the Day Well?, opens in repertory release this spring.

“I love that film, and I wrote of how original and brilliant it was,” he says. “The British propaganda films have something unique. They gave great importance to the mistakes made by the British. After all, one of the greatest is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where the only person who has political lucidity is a German.”

One of the most macabre entries produced by Ealing Studios at the time, Went the Day Well? tracks the humble innocents of a fictional English village that’s taken under siege by German paratroopers in disguise. Told in flashbacks from a then-uncertain future in which the Nazis were already defeated, the film is a Union Jack–waving tale of empowerment about everymen and -women taking back their town. “It’s so anarchistic,” Tavernier says. “The moments of violence are so unexpected and brutal. A woman shoots a traitor three or four times—not once—and it’s cold-blooded. She really wanted to see him dead. Cavalcanti’s breaking many taboos.”

He continues to gush, excitedly: “Cavalcanti was one of the most intelligent filmmakers of all time. He’s the one who said—and this is advice that I’ve always kept—if you want to tell the story of the post office, tell the story of one letter.”

“I was always saying that on The Princess of Montpensier,” Tavernier admits, citing the intimacy of his narrative as the key to richly depicting and humanizing the tearing apart of an entire kingdom.

‘The Princess of Montpensier’ opens April 15 (IFC Films), ifcfilms.com; ‘Went the Day Well?’ opens May 20, Film Forum, filmforum.org

Spring Film Picks

Armadillo
April 8
Named for a fortified outpost in Afghanistan (wait, don’t skip ahead yet!), Janus Metz’s Cannes Prize–winning doc about thrill-seeking Danish soldiers embedded in Taliban sniping country is an absolute jaw-dropper, eschewing narration and talking heads to let real firefights and downtime behavior (video games and porn) fuel a potent narrative. The platoon’s collective adrenaline rush—already proving controversial in the film’s homeland—might sound like a nonfiction version of The Hurt Locker, but it’s actually closer in its unexpectedly gorgeous, poetically harrowing tone to Apocalypse Now. Lorber Films, in limited release, lorberfilms.com

Meek’s Cutoff
April 8
A bonnet-clad Michelle Williams reteams with Wendy and Lucyauteur Kelly Reichardt—the latter quickly establishing herself as the richest storyteller of dreamy, road-movie Americana—in this sparse but startling, subtly politicized Western set in 1845 Oregon. Grizzled guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads three pioneering families off the wagon trail, debatably on purpose, which leads to thorny drama, moral introspection, and existential dread as the water supply runs dangerously low. Minimalist art film or not, it’s a white-knuckle ride played at a slower speed. Oscilloscope Laboratories, in limited release oscilloscope.net

‘Cruel Cinema: New Tamil Film’
April 14–17
If opulent Bollywood musicals represent India’s upper crust, then these flicks—part of a celebrated new wave of seedier, lower-budget, more challenging fare from the southern Tamil Nadu region—would be the well-read punks shaking them down in back alleys. Before digging into The Hero of Paruthi, Pudhupettai, and Subramaniapuram, strap in for 2009’s I Am God (Naan Kadavul), a beautifully bonkers epic featuring a half-mad, pot-smoking messiah who fights in favor of disabled beggars, dwarfs, cross-dressers, and more supporting players seemingly escaped from Jodorowsky’s oeuvre. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org

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