Home > Reviews > LA PRINCESSE DE MONTPENSIER – Philippe Sarde


February 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

leprincessedemontpensierOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

La Princesse de Montpensier – The Princess of Montpensier – is a French period drama based on a classic novel by Madame de Lafayette and directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Set during a period of religious turmoil in 16th century France, the film stars Mélanie Thierry as Marie, a young noblewoman who falls in love with the dashing Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). However, in order to further her father’s political ambitions, she is forced to marry instead the well-connected Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), a career soldier who quickly leaves for war. Left alone in the care of an aging nobleman, Marie soon finds her life becoming more complicated as she begins to encounter the different political – and sexual – manipulations of her new world.

The music for La Princesse de Montpensier is by Philippe Sarde, the forgotten man of French film music. Despite receiving an Oscar nomination for his score for Tess in 1980 and contributing music to successful international films such as Ghost Story, The Bear and Quest for Fire, Sarde’s music has never really captured the film music world’s imagination like that of some of his countrymen. It’s not a case of him having stopped working – on the contrary, in France he continues to score two or three films a year and received a Cèsar nomination for this score – and it’s not a case of him being a poor composer: on the contrary, he is invariably excellent. Instead, it’s more a case of him having virtually no international profile. He hasn’t scored a film that made the American box office charts since Ponette in 1997, 14 years ago, and very few of his soundtrack releases make international headlines; as such, his music has no following outside his native land. What La Princesse de Montpensier proves, however, is that he is still as vital and impressive a composer as he ever was, and that more people should be listening to his music.

Performed by the Pro Arte Orchestra of London (who specialize in recapturing an authentic “period” sound), and arranged and conducted by John Barry’s long-time orchestrator Nic Raine, Sarde’s score is a fairly straightforward dramatic work, offset with pieces that seem to be attempting to mirror the baroque stylistics of the popular classical music that was prevalent during the time in which the film is set. Much of the time, Sarde cleverly mixes the styles simultaneously, playing music which sounds ancient in terms of instrumentation, but is arranged in a distinctly modern style. The score is heavy on strings, percussion and woodwinds, and oscillates between driving, almost primal-sounding percussion cues and lyrical, vaguely liturgical quieter moments, the latter most likely reflective of the religious aspect of the story.

The score opens with the fantastic “Air de Chabannes”, an unexpectedly dark and powerful motif in which a set of ragged-sounding woodwinds intone a wavering, classical-sounding melody over an energetic beat driven by surging strings, pounding timpanis, blatting brasses, and all manner of exotic shakers and rattles. Surprisingly, the score features quite a bit of this dramatic almost-action music. “La Chevauchée de Montpensier” and “Bataille”, for example, pit staccato percussion rhythms and stark orchestral textures against a whining, guttural woodwind soloist – possibly a cornett or a shawm – to unnerving, but absorbing effect. Later, the second half of “Préparatifs du Massacre” returns the cornett to the forefront of the score, and sees it howling over the top of a driving, martial brass-and-percussion beat, while “Mort de Chabannes” re-states the action-style motif heard in the opening cue. In cues such as these, where at times the music sounds almost intentionally off-key, the score reminds me of a less chaotic, more lyrical version of Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes.

At other times, Sarde strips the music down to its bare bones, often featuring just two or three instruments in tandem: religioso voices intoning liturgical plainsong in “Après la Bataille (Ouverture)”, a gentle solo flute over a soft bed of quietly romantic strings with a prominent plucked bass in “Sous le Charme de Guise” and “La Leçon”, a ghostly female vocalist and a string wash in “Il Ressemblait à Henri de Guise”, a lonely recorder over a bed of swaying strings at the beginning of “Préparatifs du Massacre”. It’s quite enchanting, simply done and beautifully effective, and all without heaping on the saccharine sentiment that often overwhelms scores of this type.

The extended “Réception Chez les Montpensier (Suite de Danses)”, and later the “Tragique Méprise”, are wonderfully authentic-sounding baroque pieces which could have come directly from the pen of Jean-Baptiste Lully himself, and make wonderful use of the standard ‘basso continuo’ compositional style, with the distinctive sound of a viola da gamba carrying the melody. The score’s finale, “Marie se Retire de l’Amour”, ends things on an upbeat note, pitting the liturgical vocal plainsong heard in the second cue against a vaguely tribal, vaguely ethnic instrumental accompaniment that is as peculiar as it is beguiling.

Overall, La Princesse de Montpensier is as unusual a score as I have heard in a while, and certainly not what one would expect from a French period drama. However, for some reason, the combination of ancient and modern, of time periods colliding in a musical sense, piqued my interest and stimulated my intellect, purely because the resultant sound is so unique. Considering that Sarde – who reportedly spends most of his time in his Parisian apartment wearing nothing more than a robe and slippers, like a kind of French musical Hugh Hefner – is still capable of writing this kind of surprising, challenging music after nearly 40 years in the business is testament to his talent, and I wish we heard his kind of creativity more often.

Rating: ****

Buy the Princesse de Montpensier soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Air de Chabannes (2:08)
  • Après la Bataille (Ouverture) (1:55)
  • Sous le Charme de Guise (2:49)
  • La Chevauchée de Montpensier (3:26)
  • Chabannes Rejoint la Guerre (2:27)
  • Il Ressemblait à Henri de Guise (3:48)
  • Confession de Chabannes (2:34)
  • Bataille (4:07)
  • Contre l’Arbre/La Leçon (3:32)
  • Réception Chez les Montpensier (Suite de Danses) (4:47)
  • Tragique Méprise (2:39)
  • Préparatifs du Massacre (3:46)
  • Mort de Chabannes (3:13)
  • Une Âme Aussi Fière Que la Vôtre (2:14)
  • Marie se Retire de l’Amour (3:13)

Running Time: 47 minutes 48 seconds

Universal 275-478-8 (2010)

Music composed by Philippe Sarde. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The Pro Arte Orchestra of London. Orchestrations by Philippe Sarde and Nic Raine. Recorded and mixed by William Flageollet. Album produced by Philippe Sarde.

  1. Sir Cecil
    June 6, 2011 at 9:52 am

    The reviewer talks of Sarde trying to “mirror” period music and provide “classical-sounding” melodies. In fact several ARE melodies from composers of the period, adapted beautifully, but nevertheless not of Sarde’s invention. A very fine score, but Sarde might have given credit in the notes to the composers (even those called “anon”) who composed much of the music five hundred years ago.

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