If Queen Margot were to be adapted in America today, it would surely become a premium cable series. Nowadays, the mix of a lavish, old-fashioned period drama with gritty graphic violence and sex is commonplace in popular series like The Tudors and The Borgias. But in 1994, Queen Margot was quite controversial for its unflinching look at the merciless ugliness and violence of 16th century France.
In fact, the original 160-minute cut of Queen Margot was found to be so violent and grimy for a period drama that the American distributors asked for a shorter, less violent version that focused more on the romance sub-plot instead of the perpetration and the aftermath of the infamous Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which is the real focal point of the film. Many European critics and audiences eventually mocked the approximately 140-minute American cut of Queen Margot.
It's baffling that American audiences finally get to see Queen Margot in its uncut version in 2014 via a gorgeous 4K restoration while the frankly graphic depiction of sex and violence in period drama cable shows has been commonplace for years. Aside from the abovementioned examples, Queen Margot's understandably convoluted story where you'll easily lose track of the many lineages, alliances, cultures and religions of the vast cast of characters if you don't pay close attention to every second of its running time is surely reminiscent of Game of Thrones sans the fantasy elements.
Based on Alexandre Dumas' novel, Queen Margot is about the supposed last-ditch attempt at peace between the Catholics and Protestants in France, two factions who are at each other's throats when the story begins in 1572. In order to bring the two sects together, Margot De Valois (Isabelle Adjani), sister to Catholic King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) is forced into an arranged marriage with the Protestant King Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil).
While Margot falls in love with a hunky Protestant soldier named La Mole (Vincent Perez), the Catholics in power use the convenience of the hundreds of powerful Protestants coming to their doorstep for the wedding as an opportunity to slaughter them. Director Patrice Chereu gradually eases the audience into the violent centerpiece of the film, the massacre where Catholics murdered hundreds of Protestants in cold blood.
The first act depicts the wedding in the fashion of a traditional period drama, full of vibrant colors and eccentric characters. Slowly but surely, the color scheme takes on a more gray tone as the realistic depictions of various orgies, murders and betrayals showcasing the true barbaric debauchery of the time are brought further and further into the foreground. By the time the dark and blood-soaked massacre takes place, we're fully introduced to the more unrelenting style of Queen Margot.
The aftermath of the massacre does not sugarcoat the paranoia that envelops the characters as some murder family members they did not intend to harm and some convert to opposing sects in order to save their own skin. With a more traditional approach, we could expect the bustling romance between Margot and La Mole to ease into a more predictable, rose-colored conclusion, but the ending steers as far away from such a convenient crowd-pleaser as possible.
Of course none of this means Queen Margot is some kind of an art-house masterpiece that only attempts to break the rules of genre narrative. It's merely a classic period drama that doesn't shy away from the realistic sex and violence of the period. It's still a gorgeous, impeccably directed, acted and designed epic that should please the fans of the genre, especially considering a random episode of The Tudors contains more graphic sex and violence than Queen Margot ever could.
The 1080p transfer of the recent 4K restoration of Queen Margot is as perfect a home video presentation of this film as we'll get for a long time. The colors are vibrant, the contrast and grain are very film-like and I couldn't find any video noise. All in all, this is an incredibly clean and loyal presentation that resembles the astounding attention to detail of a Criterion release.
The French DTS-HD 5.1 track is the only one offered on the disc. Although the surround channels don't get much of a workout, which probably stems from the original mix, the dialogue is very clear and the sound effects mix perfectly with Goran Bregovic's superb score.
Audio Commentary by Richard Pena: One might expect a commentary from an established film scholar like Pena, who is the Director Emeritus of The New York Film Festival, to be filled with technical details surrounding the film's production. There's some of that to be sure, but Pena surprisingly gives the audience a lot of insight into the actual history Queen Margot depicts. This is an excellent commentary, especially for history buffs. The only problem is that there are too many long sections where Pena doesn't speak.
The 2014 reissue Trailer is also included, as well as a booklet full of essays about the film.
Although not the timeless masterpiece a lot of film critics claim it to be, Queen Margot is a first-rate effort that had the courage to push the boundaries of the traditional period drama. The perfect A/V transfer alone is worth the price of purchase.