3.5 out of 5 stars

The traditional costume drama had so often presented such a tired and unconvincing portrayal of the past that the arrival of the new wave of “heritage films” in the 1980s and 1990s came as a breath of fresh air. Frequently based on classic literature, these films did tend to take a highly romanticised view of historical eras—Merchant-Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptations being acclaimed or derided examples, depending on your viewpoint. However, they were also notable for making a real effort to recreate the physical environment of their periods convincingly.

Though the heritage film was most closely associated with Britain, the model was also adopted in other countries. In the US, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) was a prominent example. In France, where production was encouraged by culture minister Jack Lang, Daniel Vigne’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), along with Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette (1986) and Manon des Sources (1986), were well-regarded early examples.

The mixture of physical realism and unrealistically intense melodrama in Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot (released in North America as Queen Margot but far better known under its French title) was therefore not unfamiliar to audiences of the time. It remained powerful nonetheless, even if Chéreau’s film is ultimately as unquestioning as another fine example of the genre from the same year, Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George (1994).

In common with other films of their ilk, these pictures very overtly reject some stereotypical notions of the past—the idea that royal courts were full of gallant noblemen, elegant ladies, and loyal retainers, for instance. However, they quite happily perpetuate other, rather traditional, ideas. While anxious for a “good” character to occupy the throne, neither film seems remotely concerned by the hereditary system itself, nor by the structural inequalities within society beyond the court, even if they occasionally show sympathy towards individuals. And beneath what appears to be relatively accurate and sometimes very gritty world-building, the stories they tell remain fairly traditional, offering only a limited critique of the past. La Reine Margot, indeed, is a prime example of this: lively and unconstrained, but never truly radical.

Certain aspects immediately strike you as genuine, or at least feeling genuine (there’s a difference, of course). Chéreau also very clearly strives to give the film an immediacy, a sense of being present, that the more sedate costume dramas of previous decades rarely achieved. At the grand soirée early on, following the marriage of Princess Margaret of Valois (or Margot, played by Isabelle Adjani) to King Henry of Navarre Henri de Bourbon (Daniel Auteuil), the fluid camerawork and equally informal, natural behaviour of the guests perfectly captures the feeling of a modern party scene.

This spontaneity and lack of formality are noticeable throughout. There’s no hint of anyone deliberately adopting Olde Worlde manners, no “sirrahs” or “prithees”, and yet nothing seems anachronistic either (even though the film’s dialogue as a whole has occasionally been criticised for that). What’s going on here isn’t an attempt to self-consciously blend the past and present in the way Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) did, but a suggestion that the past was genuinely more like the present than most historical films acknowledge; its inhabitants were fundamentally much the same as us underneath.

The year is 1572. Margot and Henri are married at Notre-Dame in Paris—a sumptuous scene—as part of a scheme by Margot’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici (Virna Lisi), to forge peace between France’s ruling Catholic family and the Protestants, the group to which Henri belongs. However, this cynical ploy does not prevent Catherine from also ordering the slaughter of thousands of Protestants, including many who had come to Paris specifically for the wedding. This horrific event, known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, has become the film’s most famous sequence. Henri now fears for his life. Can his loveless, politically motivated marriage to Margot save him for long?

Although scorning him at first (“Do I look married?” she asks), Margot, as Henri’s new queen, does indeed warm to him and they become allies, if nothing more. However, she also falls genuinely in love with another Protestant, La Môle (Vincent Perez), and tries to protect him. Meanwhile, further struggles rage elsewhere in the family. Another of Catherine’s sons, Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), is the ruling king, but he appears to be mentally unstable. A younger son—Henri, Duke of Anjou (Pascal Greggory)—makes little secret of his ambitions to seize the throne.

La Reine Margot is based on the 1845 novel by Alexandre Dumas, which was in turn based (with quite a little dramatic licence) on real historical events; it was filmed at least three times before—in 1910, 1914 and 1954—and a Russian TV adaptation followed shortly after the Chéreau film in 1996, but none of these versions had anything like the same level of impact as the 1994 version.  It’s packed with murder, sex, and betrayal to a degree that can border on the histrionic; the way that Paris seems almost permanently in the darkness of dawn or dusk, if not actual night, underlines the way that its characters are subsumed in a morass of intrigue.

Yet it doesn’t go so far over the top that it becomes laughable, and although Chéreau’s background as a director of theatre and opera is certainly noticeable, that’s not a bad thing. There’s never any sense in La Reine Margot that a proscenium arch is about to appear, and the camerawork and editing are generally very fluid and cinematic, even when everything—violence, emotion, splendour—is amplified as it might be on stage.

The criticism has been fairly levelled that the film is difficult to follow. There are simply too many characters, not all of whom are given much depth or have their relationships fully explained. For instance, Catherine’s third son, François, Duke of Alençon (Julien Rassam), disappears from the narrative for so long that viewers can be forgiven for forgetting who he is. The writers likely assumed a knowledge of French history that the domestic audience for this type of film might possess, but which a foreign audience largely wouldn’t.

Despite this, the film’s core narrative remains clear, packed with genuine surprises and some truly terrific individual scenes. These include, of course, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a thrilling action sequence where a boar hunt goes awry, and a powerfully extended, albeit melodramatic, death scene for a leading character (following the ingenious administration of arsenic and the subsequent, likely apocryphal but believable within the film’s context, symptoms of poisoning—a perfect example of how films like La Reine Margot can create a veneer of realism without being historically accurate).

If the plethora of characters and their complex connections can sometimes feel overwhelming, some of the individual actors do much to differentiate them. The most striking performance in the film comes from Anglade (who previously collaborated with Chéreau on his acclaimed 1983 film The Wounded Man / L’Homme Blessé) as Charles IX. Here is a man clearly struggling to cope with the pressures of his position, who seems happier interacting with his dog than with the humans of the royal court. His stringy, unwashed hair (a stark contrast to the impeccable appearance of most around him) symbolises his inner turmoil. He evokes empathy and is almost pitiable, but not entirely so, for glimpses of strength occasionally flicker through, suggesting he hasn’t been wholly defeated.

Gregory unlike his brother is the polar opposite: quiet, completely controlled and self-assured, threatening, arrogant. He risks being a cliché but he is watchingly evil par excellence, almost twirling his moustache. A rather similar performance comes from Lisi as Catherine de’ Medici, frequently shot in such a way that she resembles Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), a skulking, skeletal, spiderish figure, her pale face emerging from a near-black background. But she is—more than Greggory’s Henri—given a human dimension too, realising only too late how destructive her political skullduggery has been.

Margot herself is harder to engage with as a person. While Adjani radiates intensity (“She lives as though she is seeking revenge”, another character says), she’s perhaps too purposeful, too determined; there’s little sign of any weakness or inner conflict, and she seems sure to succeed at anything she does, so we don’t really feel she’s in any peril. The fact that hers is the title role, all but guaranteeing her survival throughout the film, of course, doesn’t help. Even her relationship with La Môle is never allowed to seem tentative—it goes from casual sex (with Margot firmly in control) to full-blown love-of-her-life with no in-between, no stages of hope or doubt. 

Although Perez as La Môle himself seems rather bland (the fault of the writing at least as much as the acting), Auteuil as Margot’s new husband is interestingly vulnerable, uncertain at times whether he will be allowed to live for long, and the contrast of this helplessness with his theoretical political power gives the actor much to work with, as does the contrast of his notionally exalted position with his scruffy appearance (Catherine calls him “the peasant”, another character refers to him as a “scarecrow”). In the large supporting cast, meanwhile, Jean-Philippe Écoffey as a surgeon is a stand-out, his knowledge of poisons giving him a vital role in moving the story forward.

Visually, the film is a feast, thoroughly modern once again. One scene, a meeting of the Protestants in Amsterdam, does bear a rather strong resemblance to a Dutch Master painting (as does, more briefly, a shot of the Polish envoys to the French court). However, Chéreau doesn’t go nearly as far in this direction as Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon (1975) or Peter Greenaway in The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). For the most part, there’s no attempt at all to give La Reine Margot a specifically “period” look, beyond the sets and costumes, of course. The same applies to the music by Goran Bregovic.

There are occasional touches of historicism here—a little pseudo-mediaeval flute during the hunt sequence, a stylistically anachronistic yet still antique-sounding Gloria at Margot and Henri’s wedding, and a secular song (a pleasing change from the plainsong a more predictable composer might have used) for the title sequence. But there are electronic elements to the score as well, and this enthusiastic mixing of the new and the old (or at least faux-old) reflects the film well. Notable performers on the soundtrack include the Israeli singer Ofra Haza and Pierre Pincemaille, one of the best-known French organists at the time.

La Reine Margot was reasonably successful at the box office, briefly topping the French charts although inevitably finding smaller audiences elsewhere. Critical reception, however, was mixed. In France, it won the Jury Prize at Cannes as well as the ‘Best Actress Award’ for Lisi. It also picked up five César Awards (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards) for Adjani, Anglade, Lisi, cinematography, and costume design. For some export markets, though, the original version of around 162 minutes was cut to around 145 minutes (sources differ on the precise numbers), and this may have contributed to the perception that the storyline was difficult to understand.

There were other issues raised, too. Janet Maslin in The New York Times welcomed the cuts but still found the film “feverish” and “highly excitable.” Variety’s unnamed writer was scathing, saying it “aspires to the mantle of Shakespearean tragedy but plays more like a bad Grand Guignol theatre.” Critic Peter Sobczynski, writing much later, was more sympathetic, noting that “everything, ranging from the emotions of the characters to the stunning costumes and production design, has been consciously over-scaled for maximum effect.” He acknowledged that it “tells a complex story, dealing with historical and religious issues without dumbing things down,” and called it “as lavish and ravishing as anything that has been put on the screen in recent years.”

The larger-than-life elements of La Reine Margot—the extremes of behaviour and emotion, the extravagant violence—can make it difficult to take entirely seriously. Nevertheless, it carries more thoughtful weight than it might initially appear. It’s easy to overlook that (from the title onwards) it’s very much a film where women drive events; Adjani’s Margot and, particularly, Lisi’s Catherine de’ Medici are responsible for most significant narrative developments, and the men are comparatively passive.

This is true of many heritage films, but of course, it reverses a male-dominated view of history that was perpetuated until very recently. In La Reine Margot, the women make even fewer concessions to traditional femininity than usual. The carnage of St Bartholomew’s Day is less common in heritage films, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Sam Peckinpah film; the frank brutality with which it’s presented can’t help but evoke thoughts of modern-day massacres. Comparisons have been drawn to the bloody crackdown on protesters in Timișoara, Romania, in 1989, and to the war in the former Yugoslavia, but for many viewers, the piled-up bodies will most obviously echo photographs of the Holocaust.

This is the key to La Reine Margot, as with many heritage films: it can certainly feel historically authentic, but it’s still much more geared to modern viewers than to strict accuracy. You could say it tells a modern story that happens to be set in the past, rather than interrogating the past itself. The multifarious colours of clothing, for example, are never quite the shades of our garments, and that immediately helps to conjure up the sense of another age; but the costume designer didn’t set out to faithfully recreate the real colours of 16th-century France.

Similarly, both Henri and Margot were actually teenagers during the events depicted, but the modern teenager is so different from their 16th-century counterparts 400 years ago that casting them as that age would have given entirely the wrong impression. The music, too, frequently feels “right” for the time although it’s not the music these characters would have known.

Invariably, some will level the pedantic cavil at La Reine Margot (and films of that ilk) that it all misleads: that it presents an erroneous picture of the past. While this is true in a strictly literal sense, it misses the point of such productions. Their purpose is to tell a good story and to reinvigorate historical film with the urgency, humanity, and drama that more respectful films, burdened by their fidelity to the period, can sometimes lack.

La Reine Margot isn’t entirely successful. Some of the characterisation is weak, and following the plot is challenging, at least for viewers unfamiliar with French history. However, when it works, it’s a fine example of its genre, a film where we rarely doubt that these are real events happening to real people. Despite its long running time, it has more energy than the entire output of Merchant-Ivory combined.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Patrice Chéreau.
writers: Danièle Thompson & Patrice Chéreau (based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas).
starring: Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Vincent Perez & Virna Lisi.