Over a year ago, I had the privilege of attending one of the screenings of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, which was being shown in a brand new restoration at Film Forum in New York City. One of the storylines in that film involved the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which took place in Paris, France in 1572. It is believed that the royal family plotted to kill the top Protestant leaders in order to assert Catholic dominance in France. This massacre was also depicted (in a much more detailed manner) in Patrice Chereau’s 1994 film Queen Margot. I was lucky enough to catch the last showing of its week-long run recently at Film Forum. It was a brand new DCP restoration of the director’s cut, and I must admit that it delivered everything that was promised in the 20th anniversary trailer (plus more).
Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, Queen Margot centers on Margaret of Valois, otherwise known as Margot, who is forced into an arranged marriage with Henri of Navarre in 1572 France. The purpose of the marriage is to supposedly bring peace between the Catholics and Protestants (who’ve been fighting for political control of France), but the wedding is used to lure the top Protestant leaders to Paris. Margot’s mother, Queen Catherine, helps to orchestrate the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre a few days after the wedding, which sees the slaughter of thousands of Protestants, including most of the top leaders. Margot manages to save a Protestant soldier named La Mole, who she falls in love with. Margot tries to save Henri’s life as well (despite not loving him) as her family plots to have Henri eliminated while La Mole works on a plan to help Henri and Margot escape from Paris.
Isabelle Adjani gives one of her best performances as Margot. She brings passion, intensity, and even compassion to a woman caught between her Catholic royal family, her Protestant husband, and her young Protestant lover. Virna Lisi is terrific as Catherine de Medici, mother of Margot and her three brothers (including King Charles IX). Lisi is ruthless, cunning, and deceitful (she was the true mastermind behind the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, at least according to the novel and film). The rest of the cast (Vincent Perez, Daniel Auteuil, Dominique Blanc, Pascal Greggory, Miguel Bose, Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jean-Claude Brialy) delivered top-notch performances, but I must mention Jean-Hugues Anglade as King Charles IX. It certainly wasn’t an easy role to play; this was a character who was a hypochondriac, was sometimes neurotic and other times calm and clear-headed. The revelation of his secret mistress and child surprised me, especially when he explained to Henri of Navarre why he kept them a secret (even from his own mother). Anglade created a much more complex character than one might initially suspect.
Chereau and Daniele Thompson did a great job in adapting Dumas’ novel. Chereau also certainly didn’t hold anything back when it came to having the time period depicted. Characters throughout the film look filthy (the royal ones less so as they bathed once in a while). Sexual activity takes place pretty much anywhere and everywhere. The world created by production designers Richard Peduzzi and Olivier Radot is gritty and really does look like it’s inhabited by these characters. This was complemented quite nicely by Philippe Rousselot’s terrific cinematography. The makeup design by Kuno Schlegelmilch was superb, especially the level of gore presented in the film (I was fascinated by how the king’s blood-sweating was achieved). Moidele Bickel did an excellent job with her Oscar-nominated costume designs, which looked authentic to the period. Then there’s Goran Bregovic’s magnificent score, which used some surprising but still effective instrumentation (some of the score can be heard in the 20th anniversary trailer). Overall, Chereau has crafted an incredible period piece that doesn’t pull any punches with its storytelling as well as its execution (no pun intended). If one still couldn’t explain how insane religion can be, then watching this film should be able to provide an answer.