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You wouldn't believe that the year 1572 could be so fascinating.
Here's something special, a romantic historical epic that re-thinks the subgenre from the ground up and delivers everything audiences want: glamorous stars, impressive sets and costumes, intense plotting, plenty of sex and a surprising level of gore. It's also rather faithful to the real historical record.
Patrice Chéreau's Queen Margot (La reine Margot) can lay fair claim to greatness; in its scope and intensity it's been compared to The Godfather. It claimed most of the French César awards in 1994. The Oscars only nominated its costume design, which in retrospect seems like outright jealousy -- few films made in America in the '90s are as impressive. At two hours and forty minutes it's a genuine epic, an event picture.
The subject is the chaos in the royal court during and after the St. Bartholomew Massacre, in which a cabal of Catholics slaughtered thousands of Protestants. The story has been adapted for films more than once. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance depicts the massacre itself but ignores the complex history. This version is based on Alexandre Dumas' popular novel about a central figure in the French court, Marguerite de Valois, called "Queen Margot". An earlier B&W version of Dumas' story starred Jeanne Moreau. Produced by Claude Berri, Patrice Chéreau's epic offers the radiant Isabelle Adjani as Margot, a royal caught in the middle of dark deeds and foul conspiracies.
Despite the fact that she is Catholic and he is a Protestant Huguenot, Marguerite "Margot" de Valois (Isabelle Adjani) is forced to marry King Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). The Catholic King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) plays his role in this charade, which is part of a cold-blooded scheme by their mother Catherine de Médicis (Virna Lisi of How to Murder Your Wife) to crush the Protestant opposition, a 'tolerated' minority led by Coligny (Jean-Claude Brialy). France is split by the two religions and civil wars have been ongoing for some time; the wedding is offered as a peace gesture. But that's really a sham, as Catherine and her favorite son Anjou (Pascal Gregory) wish to foment an 'unforeseen' religious cleansing. With all of the Huguenots in Paris for the wedding, Catherine's sons' form a gang of assassins. Starting with Coligny, the killing escalates until thousands of Huguenot men, women and children are slashed to death in their beds and in the narrow Paris streets.
Seeing the hatred and hypocrisy and resenting her family's use of her honor as a weapon, Margot does what she can to protect her new husband Henri, even though she despises him. But Margot falls madly in love with a young Huguenot, Joseph Boniface de La Môle (Vincent Perez). She hides him from the slaughter, and he escapes to the North. Captured but spared thanks to Margot's intervention, Henri is forced to convert to Catholicism and begins a long, nervous residence with his royal in-laws. Realizing that Margot's loyalties cannot be trusted, Catherine keeps her daughter under house arrest. Anjou and King Charles' other brother do not like it when Charles finds them thrones in Poland and Navarre. Catherine concocts various, nefarious plans to replace Charles with her favored Anjou. She also connives to have Henri killed, as he is becoming too friendly with the emotional, nervous Charles. The wicked Catherine's closest confidantes are her personal assassin and her perfume maker, who doubles as an expert in poisons.
Queen Margot plunges us directly into a crazy world. Standard older historical dramas gave us crowd scenes with costumes, huge battles, recreations of castles and churches, and characters that delivered lofty speeches. Patrice Chéreau doesn't skimp with the production values but he keeps his camera in close, concentrating on his characters. There are so many that it takes concentration to sort them out. The royals are a surly mob of mostly intolerant monsters using clan and faith to justify their selfish actions. Everybody seems to be extremely promiscuous, including Margot, who when frustrated goes masked into the city streets to find a lover for the evening. Incest is common -- one of Margot's own brothers seeks to be her bedmate on her very wedding night. Henri's semi-secret lover is Charlotte of Suave (Asia Argento), one of Margot's relatives.
Although some of author Dumas characters are composites, we're told that most of what happens in Queen Margot based on historical fact. The La Môle character is said to be a combination of the actual La Môle (Margot's lifelong lover) and another Huguenot that Margot shielded from the massacre by hiding him in her chamber. The massacre is a grotesque orgy of blood and killing, with Margot's male relatives indulging themselves in rape, impalement and throat slashing. Margot's friend, associate and spy Henriette de Nevers (Dominique Blanc) gleefully accompanies the thugs to witness the killings first-hand. Realizing that her wedding was a trick to gather the Huguenot leaders in Paris, Margot is outraged. She saves Henri de Navarre on the principle that he is her husband, even though she has refused to have anything to do with him.
Queen Margot overflows with vivid characters, from the pompous and insinuating Anjou and his thoroughly depraved mother ("Being King, Charles, means doing both good and bad.") to the promiscuous women at court and the reckless, violent males. As nobody we see can be defined using modern notions of virtue -- the good Margot is sexually a very wanton woman -- we soon stop judging people. Henriette seems almost a demon during the massacre, yet stays true and loyal to her best friend. La Môle and the brutish leader of the slaughter Coconnas (Claudio Amendola) meet as bitter enemies, only to later join forces. The chemist-poison expert and the royal executioner both turn out to be decent men, considering the services they provide the crown.
The show is intensely romantic; Isabelle Adjani and Vincent Perez win the prize as the most attractive romantic couple of the last twenty years. Their attraction is pure sex across false religious boundaries, and their love seems an antidote against the wicked crimes committed in the name of the Church. Adjani is drop-dead gorgeous and her acting is stunning. I've only seen her in a couple of pictures, and hadn't realized what a powerful performer she could be.
Daniel Auteuil is impressive as a nervous royal convinced that everything that happens to him is a setup for murder. Disdained by all, he soon proves himself to be superior to his tormentors. Like the real Henri de Navarre, this guy is a survivor. We see him convert to Catholicism at the point of a sword, and then much later, renounce that oath to lead Navarre against the Catholics. He's very lucky but he's also a good politician -- he accepts that his bride Margot loves La Môle, and takes her friendship instead.
As King Charles IX, Jean-Hughes Anglade (of the erotic drama Betty Blue) also has an impressive character arc to perform. Charles begins as a craven coward under the thumb of his mother. But he soon realizes that his personal survival isn't Catherine's top priority. Technically enemies, Charles and Henri become fast friends after an incident on a boar hunt proves to Charles that his brothers want him dead.
Behind all the horror is Virna Lisi's Catherine, a woman so determined to keep her clan on top that she'll marry her daughter to a heretic. This woman's every waking thought seems devoted to underhanded schemes. She attempts and fails to kill Henri twice with poisons, with horrific effects. Catherine is frightening because she isn't a madwoman, but a fanatic with a mission.
The movie's sumptuous décor, costumes and makeup are completely convincing. Cameraman Philippe Rousselot's strategy is to make the film look a if it were shot without special lighting. Some scenes are very dark, and shadows abound. The clothes look lived-in, although busy attendants keep fancy women like Margot looking immaculate and fresh. She's a vision, whether in her wedding gown or the revealing dresses she uses to go man hunting in the streets.
Director Chéreau doesn't go for many establishing shots yet his film never seems claustrophobic. Unlike older epics, we experience the drama from inside, rather than watch a pageant from afar. Yet the hazy backgrounds teem with dozens of extras in period costume.
The violence is neither fast-cut nor choreographed for readability; it instead seems to fly at the camera like a crime photo. Rows of men with pikes wade into crowds that can't retreat, piercing men by the score. In a dark alley, Margot happens upon a relative slashing a woman's throat, which we see just clearly enough for the gore effect to totally convince. So many dead and stripped bodies lie in the streets that the production must have hired a corps of extras trained to look convincingly slaughtered, even when they're dumped on top of each other.
Considering the film's subject matter, the moments of violence are more than justified. The film's most frightening effect is a slow death by arsenic. Among other horrible symptoms that last for days, the fevered victim sweats blood from his pores -- beads of crimson gather on his skin every time he's washed clean.
The dance of sex, religion and death comes to a morbid finale, a deliriously romantic-gruesome touch that gives the show added dramatic closure. Were the story a made-up fiction we'd think that all the perversity and gore were exaggerations by some writer. The factual Queen Margot instead fascinates with its credible depictions of decadence and virtue on a grand scale.
The Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray 20th Anniversary Director's Cut of Queen Margot is a flawless encoding of this restored epic, a show so lavish that the director admits he was convinced no producer would ever let him film it. It was slashed by 21 minutes for the USA, so this is the full version. Picture and sound are excellent. I'll be watching it again to pay more attention to Goran Bregovic's music score.
Scholar and festival film programmer Richard Peña provides an enthusiastic full audio commentary, providing a wealth of background both historic and filmic. He points out director Barbet Schroeder, who plays a small part. American film fans only partly acquainted with contemporary European film dynasties will find that the film connects a number of dots -- one of the male leads is played by singer and composer Miguel Bosé the son of the famous actress Lucia Bosé. We become convinced that every part in Queen Margot was cast with the perfect performer, even those that became major actors only later. Thomas Kretschmann of Downfall, The Pianist and the '05 King Kong plays one of Anjou's main supporters.
A new Cohen promo trailer might be patterned after a French original. A full color insert booklet contains lengthy essays about the film and its historical setting plus an essay by director Chéreau.
The highly recommended movie is in French and comes with removable English subs. Every year or so I run into a movie (usually foreign) so rich and classy that I buy a copy for my well-read daughter, who lives at a distance and can't normally watch movies with me any more. Queen Margot is a prime candidate for this year's surprise package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Queen Margot Blu-ray
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
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