The finest Western you'll see this year is set in aristocratic 16th-century France, in the heat of Counter-Reformation. Mélanie Thierry's father barters her for the titular title, marrying her off to Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet's shy, pained prince—instead of her heart's first choice, Gaspard Ulliel's Duke de Guise. De Guise keeps keeps chasing after the wedded princess, along with—for reasons requiring no explanation to anyone who's ever seen Thierry—the Duke d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and the film's calm center, the philosopher/warrior Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who has retired from an active role in the world after a campaigning tragedy. The Wars of Religion provide this boudoir-and-battlefield film's other front: Director Bertrand Tavernier applies athletic Steadicam to filthy melées and crossed dueling swords, conveying the heft of steel and crush of close combat in takes of endurance and harsh verisimilitude. The action is remarkable also for its revelation of character and moral dimension—qualities learned from American horse operas by Tavernier, who vigorously jounces painterly posing out of this period material. The setting always serves the performers rather than vice versa—though the film is also greatly enhanced by the costuming, the rugged French countryside photographed in outdoor-adventure CinemaScope, and Philippe Sarde's baroque-tribal score, its martial and romantic poles matching a tale of love (corrupted) and war (pointless).
Ulliel's Duke can't catch a break.
Opens at Seven Gables, Fri., May 20. Not rated. 139 minutes.