QUEEN MARGOT (LA REINE MARGOT) (France, 1994) ** 3/4.. Directed by Patrice Chereau. Written by Daniele Thompson & Chereau from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, Sr. Produced by Claude Berri. Photography, Philippe Rousselot. Production design, Richard Peduzzi & Olivier Radot. Costumes, Moidele Bickel. Editing, Francois Gedigier & Helene Viard. Music, Goran Bregovic. Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Vincent Perez, Pascal Greggory, Julien Rassam, Virna Lisi, et al. A Miramax release. 143 min. Rated R (sex, full frontal male nudity, strong violence).
When the French think of massacres in their country, they start with the night of St. Bartholomew's (August 23 to 14, 1572), and the Nazi reprisals at the village of Oradour in 1944.
During the religious wars in France between Catholics and Protestants, a shaky peace was signed in 1570. Queen Mother Catherine de Medicis (Lisi), worried about the loss of Catholic power and the future of her sons, married her unwilling daughter Marguerite de Valois, familiarly Margot (Adjani), to the Protestant leader King Henry of Navarre (Auteuil). That was in 1572, in Paris. Several thousand Protestant followers came along with Henry for the ceremony.
A week later, Catherine extracted from her son King Charles IX the order to massacre the Protestants. More than 3,000 of them were killed in Paris alone. "Peasant" Henry, forced to renounce Calvinism, became the Court's captive until 1576, when he escaped, renounced Catholicism and took charge again of the Protestant forces.
Separated early from Margot, in 1589 he became Henry IV, the most popular French king ever. "Queen Margot" covers 1572-76 in a story of non-stop intrigues, plots, coalitions, betrayals, fights, poisonings, executions, somber deeds and love-affairs. The will of God is variously invoked by all as a reason, an alibi, or an excuse for a lot of bloodshed.
The main romance is between Margot and Protestant Count de la Mole (Vincent Perez, the handsome but dim Christian in "Cyrano de Bergerac"). Hovering over this and all else is politically able and, in fact, religiously tolerant Catherine. To the film's credit, she is not merely the Borgia-like monster of popular history but a dour, complex, tortured personality.
The 1845 novel the book adapted was by the prolific, imaginative and most readable Alexandre Dumas. It came out just one year after his "The Count of Monte-Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." Essentially, like the other Dumas books, it is well-researched, complicated, full of side-plots, and overall not unlike an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.
Since even long movies cannot reproduce faithfully big books, the solution in Hollywood adaptations is to pare down scenarios to a degree that makes them simplistic. Here, however, the writers tried to keep as much as possible of the novel, and added a great deal of graphic mayhem and sex, flamboyantly handled by stage and opera director Chereau. The result was the opposite of Hollywood productions. But if this film is not simplistic, it can be disorienting.
The original cut at the 1944 Cannes Festival lasted 164 minutes. With an eye to American impatience, the imported version lost 21 minutes. In part these were replaced by dauntingly long explanatory texts at the start of the film. I doubt that any spectator can digest all this so quickly.
Some reviewers claim that the cuts make for more clarity, yet at the same time they still get a number of facts wrong -- and the editing is occasionally awkward. Although I was brought up on French history and the novels of Alexandre Dumas, I had to stop a preview video more than once in order to check reference works. The novel is far easier to follow.
Nonetheless the film can be fascinating, especially for its splendid photography, costumes and sets, unabated action and un-Hollywoodian approach to people and mores. But there are many times when you get disoriented with what's what and who's who.
Multi-character "historical" movies are no-win propositions. Hollywood tries to solve this not only via simplifications but by making the actors very distinct from one another -- a technique that produces stereotypes.In other genres however, it can work beautifully. Think of "The Maltese Falcon" or "Casablanca."
In "Queen Margot" the confusion comes in part because many characters, from La Mole to the King, wear long, stringy, filthy hair. Historically this is correct. Esthetically it is grungy. And if you remember that only in rather recent times people have washed regularly, and that before this the rich hid their odors behind heavy scents, you're grateful that movie is not in Smell-O-Vision.
Dumas' enormously popular books were so "clean" that their adult readers also encouraged kids to take up those novels. Most children would skim over the gooey amours and focus on the sword fights. The movie, much more naturalistic and true to the ways of its period than other films in its category, does not hesitate to "modernize" itself with a great deal of sex and gore.
Margot not only had lovers, but is often described in French history books as a nymphomaniac. The film makes no bones about it, also hints broadly at incest between Catherine and her beloved sons, is verbally explicit about Margot and her brothers, and shows that at the Court sex was as casual as in the singles bars, pre-AIDS scene.
The actors do well by their roles, from Auteuil to Adjani. He, the ugliest star in French cinema today, puts his non-looks to good use. She, even though overloaded with ho-hum passionate scenes, generally convinces. The film too is overloaded, with villains that is. This is a plus, a radical change from the hundreds of historical frescoes with too-nice heroes.
At Cannes '94 , Virna Lisi received the Best Actress prize for what is basically a big supporting role in this, her 63rd movie. Lisi , seen mostly in very forgettable Italian pictures, is known in thie USA primarily for her American comedies "How To Murder Your Wife" with Jack Lemmon and "Not With My Wife You Don't" with Tony Curtis. The award was a surprise, but it is quite justified.