La Reine Margot Review
As far back as I can remember I’ve always had a perverse fascination with history. The sweeping majesty, blood soaked power politics, wanton debauchery and general moral decay oddly provides me with an eternal comfort, as it affirms that society truly has progressed in terms of social ethics. But History is not merely a looking glass through which we can see the often primordial barbarism of ancestors and bolster our confidence about modern society’s alleged decency; history all too often acts as mirror, conveying the parallels between our antecedents’ monarchical cruelty and our own era of despotism and political deception.
Historical epics somewhat floundered after their heyday in the 40s, 50s and 60s, failing to carve out a new niche in the increasingly commercial and sanitised cinema of the 80s. It would be grossly untrue to claim that La Reine Margot acted as the impetus for the genre’s mid-1990s onwards revival, but in 1994 it most certainly provided an adrenaline shot of cinematic innovation and energy that – to my mind at least – was comparable with that of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (is it any wonder that at Cannes the latter nabbed the Golden Palm whilst the former was awarded the Jury Prize?).
1572 must surely rank as one of the most politically febrile years in French history: after numerous violent civil conflicts between the autocratic Catholics and the embittered Protestant faction, the King’s mother, Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), connives to quell the hatred by marrying her daughter Margot (Isabelle Adjani) to Henri Bourbon (Daniel Auteil) – the protestant king of Navarre. This superficial show of unity is inevitably transient: after a royally sanctioned assassination attempt on the life of protestant leader General Coligny hideously backfires, the Catholics decide that they must pre-empt a potential Protestant uprising. However, what was supposed to forestall a conflict between the religious groups eventually metamorphosed into what would become known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, an event that signalled the death of 6,000 Protestants, irretrievably blackened Medici’s name and became an unsightly smear on France’s history.
I’ve little doubt that that plot synopsis will befuddle a fair few readers and I should forewarn that La Reine Margot is an initially disorientating experience to anyone who is unfamiliar with the history it depicts - I should know, since I hadn’t an inkling of the events before seeing the film. That’s not to say you should be deterred by this: though La Reine Margot is a film that demands repeat viewings and is – as I have discovered – genuinely enriched by some knowledge of the history, it is most certainly not an inaccessible film. Roger Ebert succinctly elucidated his dislike of the movie with the criticism ‘[the film]opens on a bewildering array of characters who are not established, with motives that must be guessed’. If the idea of having to discern who characters are whilst trying to decipher their deliciously nefarious motivations seems utterly abhorrent to you, then I’d recommend you cease reading now.
Unlike Shekah Kapur’s Elizabeth, La Reine Margot does not simplify or pigeonhole its characters into the traditional archetypes of the genre: Margot is impulsive, promiscuous and politically blunt – quite the opposite of the measured wisdom and virtuousness that Elizabeth tried to forcefully imbue in its eponymous monarch. The characters do not comfortably slot into the roles of good and evil: survival seems to be the principle concern of most involved, understandable considering they inhabit a court that is tantamount to a viper’s nest of political intrigue where the threat of assassination continually looms (sometimes quite literally) around the corner. Yes this is certainly not a tranquil historical pageant and though it moulds and alters history on occasion, it nonetheless remains true to the volatile spirit of the time, a time that is reproduced to perfection with the aid of sterling cinematography and impeccable sets and costumes that are perhaps the best portrayal of any historical period ever committed to celluloid.
The film is, however, anything but a dryly factual history lesson and to counterbalance the clandestine political machinations we are presented with an admittedly slightly turgid love sub-plot: namely the relationship between Margot and a Hugenought soldier she rescues from the slaughter. The swarthy La Mole (Vincent Perez) is the adored object of her affections, much to the chagrin of not only her new husband but also – alarmingly - her brothers, Anjou (Pascal Greggory) and Alencon, who feel equally spurned by her interest in another. Margot soon finds herself in a vulnerable position at court, the suspicion being that she is a treacherous liability; her royal heritage offering little protection from the perception that she is a protestant sympathiser. Add to this already potent situation a poisoned book, several decapitations, a tyrannical mother, a feeble king and a plot to flee to Navarre and one is left with a truly riveting piece of cinema.
The quality of the acting almost exhausts the use of superlatives, as ensemble casts go this one is almost without fault. Virna Lisi exudes venom whether she’s berating her son or feigning maternal affection, in a performance that was so convincingly spiteful that she even received the best actress award at Cannes (an award that was widely – though incorrectly – tipped to go to Adjani). Pascal Greggory’s cerebrally malicious turn as the patently homosexual Anjou makes a mockery of Vincent Cassel’s camp histrionics as the same character in Elizabeth, whilst Jean-Hughes Anglade is convincingly hapless as the deeply unfortunate Charles IX. However the real acting plaudits belong to Adjani. Though I’m a great fan of hers I’d be the first to admit that her fiery intensity as an actress is apt to produce performances of divergent quality, but here her explosive and focused acting is married to an equally passionate film and the result is blindingly good. Juxtaposing a warts-and-all performance with her ethereally beautiful visage, she manages to allow the audience to empathise with a deeply complicated character whilst never sacrificing Margot’s credibility as an individual.
Though the disc is four years old – indeed it was arguably one of the first foreign films to receive a creditably decent DVD release – it still holds up well, providing pleasingly good AV quality
Picture: When distributed in international cinemas, La Reine Margot was the victim of a dirty and damaged print (see comparison shots of the film transfer and the trailer), so it comes as a relief that the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is sufficiently luscious and detailed, doing full justice to the colourful sets and costumes.
Sound: La Reine Margot may have one of the most uniquely inventive film soundtracks: a blend of modern and traditional music that never seems ill-suited to the film. The stereo presentation of the film isn’t earth shattering, but it provides enough clarity and bass to the action sequences.
Extras: No more than a trailer…but did we really expect more?
Cuts: Alright, ‘cuts’ may be a bit of a misnomer, the film hasn’t been censored per se but it does exist here in a truncated form. At its Cannes premiere, the film ran for 160 minutes – and there was later the German cinema release which reportedly lasted 170 minutes – but the cut on this DVD is 138 minutes. This is the cut that, I believe, was assembled by Miramax for international distribution; most of the edits were made for pacing and length reasons (though the massacre scenes apparently were originally longer and involved a semi-notorious whipping scene) and in truth, these cuts have probably been beneficial to the film’s fluidity. The only time it is blatantly obvious that an ill-chosen cut has been made is in the latter half of the film when an argument breaks out between Margot and her family at the 16th Century equivalent of a social gathering. We see Anjou slap Margot and then cut to the three brothers harassing her in a sexually charged manner. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that this takes place in an entirely different room with a different (and smaller) set of people. A ‘version longue’ cut of the film exists on UK VHS, which runs 152 minutes and includes some postcards of publicity stills from the film, though I haven’t seen this version and suspect that it is out of print.
As you might have ascertained from the preceding paragraphs, I am deeply enamoured of this film (I’d happily place it in my top 15) as it is capable of eliciting a broad scope of emotions from its audience whilst providing entertainment, drama and tragedy in a production that is lined with the finest brocade, marinated in gore and trimmed with excellent performances.