In this blood-soaked historical drama from the pen of Alexandre Dumas, Isabelle Adjani stars as Marguerite De Valois, better known as Margot, sister to King Charles IX (Jean-Hughes Anglade). It is August, 1572 and France is torn apart by bitter religious feuds, with Catholics vying for political control against French Protestants known as the Huguenots. To appease the protestants, the scheming Queen Mother Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi) arranges a marriage between Margot and Henri (Daniel Auteil), the king of Navarre. However, six days after the wedding the royals perpetrate the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre where thousands of Huguenots are slaughtered. One badly wounded survivor, La Môle (Vincent Perez) knocks on Margot’s door. She takes him in and, for the first time in life, falls in love… with the enemy.
Oddly enough, the romance is the weakest element in this otherwise superlative historical drama. In fact it was never intended as the narrative focal point and only became such when American distributors, Miramax concocted their ad campaign. Although Miramax wisely insisted director Patrice Chéreau reinstate one scene missing from his European cut, wherein the lovers stand outdoors wrapped in a scarlet cloak, they sadly removed a further sixteen minutes from the version released in the US and UK. The full-length, 161 minute version was briefly available as a collectors edition VHS tape in the UK, but current DVDs retain the 145 minute cut.
Regardless of the cuts made, La Reine Margot is compelling stuff, centred around courtly intrigue, political machinations, sex and murder. As a heat wave sweeps Paris, further aggravating tensions between the Machiavellian Medici princes and edgy Huguenots, Patrice Chéreau makes us feel the grubby, sweaty fear and hate rising from the city streets, but also produces some lush, painterly images for life at court. Yet its beauty and pageantry are underscored with brutality, often moving into full-blown horror as an already incestuous family further debases and destroys itself. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is a hectic, frenzied set-piece. Shocking and bloody, but not as gratuitous as detractors claim. Most of the shock value derives from seeing bodies cavalierly strewn across the street or piled in wagons, and seeing a mortician-cum-fortune teller probe a dead man’s brain matter to predict the future.
La Reine Margot marked yet another comeback role for the ravishing Isabelle Adjani, whose effortless sensuality becomes a multifaceted aspect of her character. Queen Margot is at first presented as flighty and flirtatious. A spoiled, superficial aristo who gave her virginity to her brothers, trysts with a lover on a wedding night and dons a velvet mask to prowl the streets for anonymous sex. Yet as the plot develops, it becomes apparent she is an intelligent, resourceful woman, capable of great kindness and for whom sexuality is her sole protection amidst a turbulent world. Her relationship with Navarre blossoms, if not into love, then at least respect, paralleled with the oddball friendship that develops between La Môle and his adversary, Coconnas (Claudio Amendola). Each of these characters is trapped and seeking freedom. While Margot eventually finds hers, it comes at a terrible cost and after such gruelling horrors as when her brothers physically humiliate and almost rape her in front of the whole court.
Strongly acted throughout, this features a tour-de-force from Virna Lisi as the poisonous Catherine de Medici, and even ill-defined characters like Coconnas and Margot’s companion Henriette de Nevers (Dominique Blanc) stand out by virtue of their acting. Lookout also for a young Asia Argento as the ill-fated Charlotte of Suave out to seduce Navarre, and Thomas Kretschmann as a murderous sword lackey.