La Princesse de Clèves (1961)


I’m afraid that my grasp of the French language has permanently halted at the level of fluency and comprehension of a 5-year-old (no thanks to the seven cumulative years that I spent trying to study it), so I can’t say whether or not the plot of La Princesse de Clèves (1961) is any good. I can, however, say that the costumes are … interesting.

Based on the 17th-century novel allegedly by Madame de La Fayette, the story centers around the young Princesse de Clèves, a fictionalized character set amongst the historical French court and events in the year spanning 1557-1558. However, the costumes (designed by none other than Pierre Cardin) are much more in keeping with the 1580s, and they include more than their fair share of modernisms.

So, what’s the film about? The beautiful Princesse (Marina Vlady) is married to the older and average-looking Prince de Clèves (Jean Marais), so obviously she is ripe for falling in love with the more age-appropriate and dashing Duc de Nemours (Jean-François Poron). Various intrigues and whatnot occur, with perky little Dauphine Mary Stuart (Renée-Marie Potet), a cigar-smoking Catherine d’Medici (Lea Padovani), and scheming Diane de Poitiers (Annie Ducaux) providing insights and moving the plot along to its inevitable, eye-rollingly tragic conclusion.

Seriously, the whole movie can be summed up thusly: Pretty girl is married to old, ugly guy, but is in love with hot, younger guy. Old, ugly guy dies, everyone tries REALLY HARD to convince pretty girl to get together with hot, younger guy who she totally is in love with, but she has some kind bizarre moral code that prevents her, even as a widow and free to marry, from being with the dude she loves. So, she tortures everyone with her protestations of fidelity to the dead guy and then suddenly dies for no explicable reason, leaving a beautiful corpse behind. The end.

From what I can gather, the book ended differently, with the lovers parting ways after the Princesse insists on remaining faithful to her dead husband, and she enters a convent. After a number of years pass, Nemours gets over his infatuation with her and moves the fuck on, because dude, no-one should waste their time pining over someone who is committed to making themselves as miserable as possible. But you know, movie deaths and tragic heroines are always good for reeling in the audiences.

The Princesse’s Costumes in La Princesse de Clèves

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Proof that they are able to do a back-lacing gown on an extra… But why not on the main character, who frequently has her back to the camera???

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Again with the zipper.

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This dress also had a zipper in the back, but it was mostly obscured by her veil. It is, however, the most appropriate style for the late-1550s, as opposed to the other styles the Princesse wears.

Mary Stuart’s Costumes in La Princesse de Clèves


I know that feel.


Pretty sure that Cardin was attempting to reference the Clouet portrait of Mary, c. 1555 with this dress.


Nice touch during the tennis match. No idea if it’s historically accurate, but love the concept.


I love her, and those of you who know me know that I almost never say that about Mary Stuart.

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My face towards the end of the film.




This dress is pure fantasy but SOOOOOO PRETTY I’M GOING TO DIIIIEEEEE.

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Catherine d’Medici’s Costumes in La Princesse de Clèves

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I wasn’t kidding about the cigar smoking.

Diane de Poitiers’ Costumes in La Princesse de Clèves

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Female Extras in La Princesse de Clèves

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I do approve of the massive amounts of bling, even if I cannot endorse the headgear.




The Guys’ Costumes in La Princesse de Clèves


The King and some random courtier in a fabulous doublet.

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Hello, ladies.


I have never seen any man pine as hard as Nemours.

The Verdict on La Princesse de Clèves:

Well, it’s complicated. On the one hand, the eye candy is great. On the other, zippers and weird hats. I’d say it’s worth a watch at least once, provided you can deal with the fact that the Princesse is absolutely determined to make herself as miserable as possible for no good reason.


Have you seen La Princesse de Clèves? Weigh in!


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

9 Responses

  1. hsc

    “…Prince de Clèves (Jean Marais)… old, ugly guy…”

    Sigh. It’s sad to see this written about Marais’ appearance in a movie made just 15 years after “La Belle et la Bête” and 11 years after “Orphée”. And he was only 48!

    “Proof that they are able to do a back-lacing gown on an extra… But why not on the main character, who frequently has her back to the camera???”

    Maybe it was more expedient to be able to zip Marina Vlady in and out of her costumes for some reason related to production (not sure what that could be, though), or she demanded it (assuming she’d even have that level of clout)?

    • M.E. Lawrence

      Agreed–Marais was pretty gorgeous, especially in roles calling for gorgeous. I’ve read the novel, and it probably makes much more sense than the film: nice dissection of obsession, duty versus desire, etc.

  2. Susan Pola

    Why am I reminded of the film Diane with Lana Turner? Is it that the Princesse de Cleves resembles her? Or is it the costumes reminds one of Walter Plunkett’s for the film? Or can it be that cute Mary Stuart kinda looks like Pier Angelli who played a very young Catherine di Medici? Or all three?
    I’m going with all three.

    But seriously Mary’s costumes are tdf and I’m going to make them, once my sewing machine is fixed. Or if the repair person says it’s bit the dust, when I buy a new one.

    Another movie to my watch list when I no longer laugh at Reign or wonder when Bastien is reappearing?

  3. SarahV

    All I can see when I see that array of ladies of the court is Disco Fabulous Bene Gesserit.

    Having said that, I do swoon to that amazing mourning black habiliment.

  4. SarahV

    Also, if you want to be either alternately inspired or depressed, google Marina Vlady (the lead actress) and see how gorgeous she still is at the age of 78!!!!!!

  5. Adina

    I feel like I’ve seen the striped bodice with the hat somewhere before, but I’m not sure if it was in a painting or another movie.

  6. brainybrunette20

    Have I mentioned that I F-ing hate floating ruffs? I don’t care how “Historically” accurate they are! I never include a floating ruff when playing Tudor Scene Maker game.

  7. Laura

    That costume for Catherine de’Medici reminds me of a portrait of her in court dress.