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The acclaimed French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has spent much of his career exploring the past. His best-known film "Round Midnight" takes place in 1950s New York, and "The Passion of Beatrice" is about the suffering of a young woman in the Middle Ages. Well, Tavernier's latest movie, "The Princess of Montpensier," is also the story of a young woman, this time in 16th century France.
And as Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports, these films may be set in the past but they are very much about the present.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: "The Princess of Montpensier" revolves around a young woman from a wealthy family whose father marries her off against her will at the age of 16. She's forced to become an adult in the midst of the brutal religious wars between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots. She understands almost nothing of what's going on around her.
Director Bertrand Tavernier says the trick to filming a complicated historical period is through the eyes of someone who knows very little.
Mr. BERTRAND TAVERNIER (Director, "The Princess of Montpensier"): It's a good way to get connected with the ignorance of the audience. And in truth, it was also helping me dramatizing the difference between her innocence, her vulnerability with her romantic mind and the violence of the time, the brutality of the time, the intolerance of the time. And I think that makes a great contrast.
MOVSHOVITZ: At the beginning of the movie, the princess is a passive woman among active men, many of them illiterate. But she's intelligent and perceptive; she asks questions about religion, philosophy and society.
Mr. TAVERNIER: She wanted to educate herself; she wanted to learn how to write, which was something quite revolutionary. And she wanted also to understand the reason of the war.
MOVSHOVITZ: The princess is surrounded by three men who fall in love with her. And in various ways, she loves each of them.
Love stories are unusual for Bertrand Tavernier. Most of his films center on questions of duty, loyalty and responsibility. In this movie, the princess must figure out how to express or hide her feelings within a dangerous jumble of required loyalties and wanton killing.
Scott Foundas, associate program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, says this precarious balance of the personal and the historical speaks to our own time.
Mr. SCOTT FOUNDAS (Associate Program Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center): You have people who are having very elemental human dramas - jealousy and envy and rivalries and unrequited love, and so forth - in the midst of all this political and religious turmoil that they got swept up in.
And, you know, you don't have to go too far to see the analogies to that in the world we're living in today. The conflicts in this film are so contemporary, even though we're dealing with the 16th century, and then you do start to ask, well, what's it all for?
(Soundbite of movie, "The Princess of Montpensier")
Unidentified Man #1: (French language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (French language spoken)
MOVSHOVITZ: The film opens with a brutal Protestant attack on a Catholic farmhouse.
(Soundbite of screaming)
MOVSHOVITZ: "The Princess of Montpensier" is based on the novel by Madame de Lafayette. But Bertrand Tavernier says outright that his film is not about the 16th century.
Mr. TAVERNIER: Unless I'm completely wrong, I have the impression that killing in the name of religion is still something which happens today, no? I think it's making first page of many newspaper throughout the world. It seems to me that the treatment of women is still something we are speaking about a lot, no?
MOVSHOVITZ: Yet, Tavernier is obsessed with the past. He's co-author of one of the most respected histories of American film. In his own work, Tavernier does not sanitize history. War is gruesome, castles look lived in, even the well-off are dirty. The past, he says, must not be treated as a sacred artifact.
Mr. TAVERNIER: In many period films, you have the impression that the director is very happy because he got a good Renaissance table. He made his homework and he shows you that he has a Renaissance. But for the people there, it was not a Renaissance table, it was just a table. And I have to shoot it just as a table and not as something which will belong in a museum.
So I have to film the furniture, the clothes, without any kind of respect. Like if the people are wearing jeans or a shirt of made today in China, and it must not be treated as something belonging to our cultural heritage.
MOVSHOVITZ: At the same time, Tavernier says the past is our heritage, and he's grown desperate about a younger generation interested only in its immediate present.
Mr. TAVERNIER: The way they are can be very much explained by what happened before them. I am belonging to that group of people who still believe that knowing the past is important to understand the present. I still believe in the importance of history. Like Faulkner said that the past, it's not dead, it's not even past.
MOVSHOVITZ: And that's why Tavernier continues to dig it up.
For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.