An Unlikely Master of War Movies: Bertrand Tavernier


Gaspard Ulliel in “The Princess of Montpensier”

When one thinks of the great directors of movies about war, the name Bertrand Tavernier may not immediately come to mind. However, the French director (who turns 70 on April 25) has repeatedly turned to the theme in a career spanning 37 years, and in stories that collectively span several centuries. His latest film, The Princess of Montpensier, opens with a battle scene between 16th-century Catholics and Protestants, which suggests a reprise of work like Capitaine Conan, his second film about World War I.

While Tavernier’s depictions of war are dynamic and extremely well-directed, his films delve further in the more intimate battlefield of human relationships. Aside from its battle scenes, The Princess of Montpensier mostly follows its title character’s (Mélanie Thierry) complicated love life. Almost every man in her world lusts after her, including her mentor and teacher the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson). In this way the film recalls Tavernier’s 1989 Life and Nothing But, which touched both on war and the relationship between an older man, Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret), and a young woman, Irene (Sabine Azema).

François Truffaut once said that no war films avoid the trap of glorifying battle. In The Princess of Montpensier, war is presented as an exciting, if potentially lethal, boys’ adventure. By contrast, Life and Nothing But, set in the aftermath of World War I, never shows warfare itself, just its devastating consequences. It’s a genuine anti-war film.

Watch Life and Nothing But on Fandor.

While The Princess of Montpensier conveys the appeal of war for young men, Life and Nothing But shows the damage it leaves behind for women and older men to face. Unlike The Princess of MontpensierLife and Nothing But is light on violence and bloodshed, but it’s all the more disturbing for what it does depict: people being endangered by suddenly unearthed mustard gas cannisters and land mines, a legacy of war that kills the innocent. At one point, Irene and the major compare their experiences: she says that she’s seen the full horror of war, to which he delivers an elaborate description of fields full of rotting corpses and other horrific images.

Philippe Noiret and Sabine Azema in “Life and Nothing But”

Sexual frustration leads the major to ugly behavior, including eavesdropping on women as they speak in their dormitory and interrupting them on the phone. The sexual tension between him and Irene is much the same as that between Marie and Chabannes in The Princess of Montpensier. Like Chabannes, the major admits that he’s infatuated with Irene, but unlike Chabannes, he refuses to say the words “I love you.” This inaction infuriates Irene and dooms their relationship. He ultimately aims for the safe route, finally telling her “I love you” in a letter sent only after she’s emigrated to the United States. Chabannes expresses his ultimate desires in a letter as well, but he doesn’t get to see it delivered.

The Princess of Montpensier combines sexual frankness with a sense of how damaging desire can be to its object. While war is the main theme of Life and Nothing But, it’s also a precursor of films about impossible love like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Tavernier’s two films, made 21 years apart (but both with cinematographer Bruno de Keyser and co-writer Jean Cosmos), show the hidden continuity of his seemingly eclectic oeuvre.

Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.

Watch Life and Nothing But on Fandor.

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