Originally released 13 May 1994 (France)
Scenario and adaptation by Danièle Thompson and Patrice Chéreau
Dialogue by Danièle Thompson
Directed by Patrice Chéreau
Starring Isabelle Adjani, Vincent Perez, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Pascal Greggory, and Virna Lisi
My rating: ★★★★ stars
A young queen struggles during a time of religious turmoil and civil war.
Marguerite of Valois, or, as the title calls her, Queen Margot, was a 16th century French princess, who was forced to marry the king of Navarre, a small country in the Pyrenees, in order to bring peace between France’s Catholic and Protestant Huguenot factions. That peace lasted four days.
Patrice Chéreau’s film, based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel, begins with the wedding of Margot (Isabelle Adjani) to Henry Bourbon, King of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). The marriage starts inauspiciously with Margot’s brother the French king Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) shoving her at the altar, Margot refusing to say “I do” (the bishop marries the couple anyway), Henry sniping at Margot about how her mother had his mother killed, and Margot judging which of the wedding guests she’d like to take to bed.
The situation deteriorates from there, leading to the centerpiece of the movie—a 30-minute sequence of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Huguenots instituted by the Catholic leaders of the country. Critics have pointed to this sequence as being unnecessarily violent and bloody. Today, over two decades later, it doesn’t seem gratuitous, and, let’s face it, there’s no way to show a massacre of thousands of people without being extremely violent and bloody.
Yet, for a historical epic, Queen Margot has only few scenes like the massacre sequence that are epic in scope. The film focuses on the interpersonal drama behind the big events of history. Chéreau films each conversation like it’s a physical conflict, bringing the camera close to the actors, trapping them in a confined frame, as they are trapped by political circumstance.
Margot is completely trapped by her position. She’s trapped in a marriage to a man she doesn’t know. She’s trapped in a family with a domineering mother, Catherine de Médicis (Virna Lisi), and with brothers King Charles; Henry, Duke of Anjou (Pascal Greggory); and Francis, Duke of Alençon (Julien Rassam), who sexually exploit her while demanding her unwavering loyalty to them against her husband, whom they’ve forced her to marry. Soon, she’s literally trapped in the Louvre (which at the time was the royal palace) as the streets of Paris descend into violence. Her only escape, both literal and figurative, is in her affair with La Môle (Vincent Perez), a Huguenot activist.
The men around her are trapped as well. Henry is a literal prisoner of Margot’s family. He knows that, at any moment, he could be assassinated. At one point, he nearly is and survives only because of the quick action of Margot. He is forced to give up his principles and convert to Catholicism to save his life. He, also, feels trapped in a marriage to a woman he doesn’t respect—although Henry and Margot eventually develop a partnership even if they lack romantic feeling for each other.
Charles is prisoner of his position, for which he is markedly ill-suited, and the control of his mother and his advisors. In one great sequence, Charles takes Henry of Navarre, for whom he’s developed a fondness, to visit his mistress and infant child, a place where he is free from the pressures of kingship. We get to see a pleasanter side to Charles, who, until that point, just seemed like a pathetic, petulant child, who in a tantrum orders a genocide.
Even Anjou, the clear villain of the film, is trapped by his mother’s scheming. He is forced to leave France and take over the crown of Poland. And none too soon. He’s an especially loathsome character, venomously inserting himself into every political move, with Greggory, with his distinctive appearance, looming menacingly in many a shot.
The character of Anjou, the future King Henry III of France, is a problematic one. He fits into the stereotypical trope of the devious bisexual. Rumors about Henry III keeping male lovers were abundant during his reign (although some historians suggest that they were propaganda engineered by his political enemies, who were abundant as well). And the film shows him with a male favorite following him around. Yet, in the film, he clearly enjoys the company of women as well. It’s tempting to give the film a pass because the director, Chéreau, was gay (also, the longtime companion of Greggory). But, a gay director can still employ an offensive stereotype.
Another one of my criticisms of the movie is the casting of Auteuil, Anglade, and Greggory, who at 44, 38, and 39 seem far too old to play figures who were 18, 22, and 20 at time the film takes place. For Anglade, the age difference is a problem because, while Charles’s volatile behavior could be accounted for by his youth, that explanation doesn’t work when the actor is 38. Instead of youthfully capricious and temperamental, he seems mentally deficient. Anjou is a much more scheming and confident character, so Greggory doesn’t seem as miscast as Anglade, but, still, Anjou was 20 and Greggory was twice that age, and looked it. Auteuil had the biggest age difference—26 years—between his age and the age of the person he was playing. The presentation of the character would be so radically different if Henry had been shown as a teenager instead of a middle-aged man that it would change entirely how the audience perceived the character. At least, Henry is written in such a way that his actions and speech make sense coming from a more mature man.
Isabelle Adjani’s age is another matter. Yes, she was 38 when she made the movie, and, yes, Margot was only 19 when the events of the film take place. But Adjani had such an ageless, luminous beauty she could have passed as someone in her early 20s (maybe not 19, but close).
Adjani’s performance is the cornerstone of the film. At first, she shows Margot as frivolous and promiscuous, giggling and laughing while shopping for potential lovers at her wedding, begging one of her regular lovers to share her wedding night, and, when disappointed in the men she has at her disposal in the castle, donning a mask and prowling through Paris pretending to be a prostitute to pick up men. In her mask, free of the palace, she struts through the street with confidence. But, as the situation in the capital grows increasingly dire, Adjani shows her growing into an uncertain resilience. Eventually, Margot becomes as capable of plotting and cynicism as those around her, yet Adjani makes her seem above it all, as if no matter Margot’s situation or actions, she maintains a nobility.
The film exists in at least five different official versions. The French theatrical version emphasized the political maneuvering element of the story. Fearing that American audiences wouldn’t respond to a story about details of a French history they didn’t know, the American theatrical version cut much of the political maneuvering, instead emphasizing the love story between Margot and La Môle, lengthening their scenes together and adding a new scene of them imagining a future without all the war and strife that surrounded them. A German theatrical version cut some of the political story without enhancing the love story. A German television version presented an extended cut of the film with many scenes extended and deleted scenes restored. Having read a description of these added moments, I must conclude that the filmmakers were wise to trim them in the first place. The fifth version, and the one that is the most commonly available in the US, is the Director’s Cut, which restores the full political part of the story and keeps the augmented scenes of romance.
American audiences may have some difficulty parsing through the complex political situation, but the script does a solid job of explaining the key elements. The intricacies of the politics of the film are similar to those on Game of Thrones, and, while some viewers complain about the density of that story, most find the show entertaining. Indeed, thematically, Queen Margot isn’t all that far removed from Game of Thrones. It just lacks dragons and ice zombies.
But what Queen Margot lacks in magic it makes up for in pageantry. The high production values are evident throughout the film. Particularly striking are the costumes. The royal wardrobe of the Valois court is exquisitely detailed. Each character has a distinct manner of dress that reveals personality. The vibrancy of the clothes worn by the Catholics contrasts starkly with the dark and drab colors favored by the Protestants. The gowns of Catherine are designed to highlight her head, giving her an almost skull-like appearance, and the neck decoration gives the impression of a frilled lizard on the attack or, perhaps, like a death’s head moth. Anjou’s flamboyance contrasts with Charles’s more restrained attire.
Margot, naturally, wears the greatest variety of costumes. On her wedding night, she wears a gown split down the front and laced up, giving the contradictory impression that her bosom could spill out at any moment and, at the same time, that it’s trapped, a kind of metaphor for Margot herself at this point in the film. Her final gown of white is clearly metaphorical. It can be read as a sign of renewed purity or, possibly, as a symbolic wedding gown. That it is almost immediately soaked in blood also suggests a figurative reading, perhaps, that Margot has been baptized and reborn in blood or that she is a bride marred by violence and death.
Queen Margot is a treat—epic in narrative, yet intimate in character and emotion. It’s not a film that lends itself to casual viewing, but it rewards careful attention.