Disorder in the court

Raucous, bawdy, sexy, and violent, Queen Margot is history as feverishly overwrought soap opera--history painted in tears, sweat, blood, and semen, with a very broad brush.

In telling the tale of the title character, who survived a ghastly royal power struggle that pitted Catholic against Protestant and royal against royal in 16th-century France, writer-director Patrice Chereau pushes the viewer face-first into palace skulduggery, swordfights, massacres, and carnal encounters, serving up so much splendor and horror that at times the film flirts with total sensory overload. Queen Margot has the glossy yet brutish quality common to period pictures by Alan Parker and Ridley Scott--historically precise sets and costumes wedded to romance-novel emotions and seductively gloomy performances.

Like Dangerous Liaisons, the film at first seems an anti-Puritan answer to the historical epics of classic Hollywood. It's the kind of movie in which sword wounds gush small geysers of blood and a nobleman demonstrates his passion for a young lady by servicing her orally. And yet, despite its overpowering sense of physical realism and its refreshingly base tone, Queen Margot is as unreal as the films it reacts against; it's the visual equivalent of purple prose, replete with closeups of hacked limbs and exposed brain tissue, and copulating actors gasping dialogue along the lines of, "I'll die if I can't have you tonight!"

The movie's opening section recalls key passages from the Godfather trilogy and The Deer Hunter--a big family celebration followed by a bloodbath. It's August of 1572, and France is embroiled in a holy war between Catholics, led by established French royalty, and the upstart Huguenots--oppressed Protestants desperate for religious freedom and a slice of the political pie. The king of France, Charles (Jean-Hugues Anglade), is a goofy, juvenile, manic-depressive wastrel whose best friend, Coligny (Jean-Claude Brialy), happens to be a Huguenot. Charles' two brothers, Anjou and Alecon (Pascal Greggory and Julien Rassam), don't inspire much confidence, either.

The royal mother, the imperious Queen Catherine (played by Virna Lisi, a regally intimidating actress whose hair has been pulled back so severely that her forehead looks like an evil half-moon), has a plan to bring the nation together and consolidate her clan's power in the process. She has arranged for her lusty daughter, Margot (Isabelle Adjani), to marry the leader of the Huguenots, Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil).

Margot and Henri dislike each other so intensely that they don't even bother to consummate their union afterward. And that's okay with the young queen-to-be, a randy, hedonistic party girl who has several devoted lovers scattered across Europe, and a seemingly endless number of sex partners within the city limits of Paris. (She likes to don a mask, visit the red light district, and sleep with anonymous young studs.) Margot spends the wedding night with her favorite bedmate of the moment, a steely-eyed, hard-hearted Catholic warrior named Guise (Miguel Bose).

Although both Catholics and Protestants would like to live in peace, they aren't quite willing to trust each other. To complicate matters, some people on the Catholic side are worried that the fates might conspire to make them bow to a Protestant king. Queen Catherine has three sons who are entitled to rule France--but if, heaven forbid, something happened to all three of them, Henri would ascend to the throne, with Margot at his side.

After the wedding, all of Paris parties. But the drunken reverie doesn't last long. In short order, Queen Catherine orders the killing of Coligny, her eldest son's Huguenot pal, because she fears his Protestant sympathies are warping the young king's mind. The assassination attempt fails, but the Huguenots are furious and vow revenge against the royal family. A series of steadily escalating schemes and counter-schemes leads to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, in which the most bloodthirsty Catholics in Paris (led by Margot's hateful lover, Guise) slaughter every Protestant they can get their hands on. Meanwhile, back at the palace, Queen Catherine is holding poor, bewildered Henri, his relatives, and his associates hostage, pressuring them to convert to Catholicism or be put to death.

The massacre sequence, which unfolds inside the palace and around the city streets, is a small-scale masterpiece of mayhem, as eerie and frightening as the most frenzied setpieces by Oliver Stone and Sam Peckinpah. It's pictorially beautiful in a way that somehow doesn't dehumanize the effects of violence. The hundreds of bodies strewn along hallways and gutters and piled high in meat wagons conjure the sort of supernatural awe we associate with the paintings of Breughel and Bacon and the goriest passages of the Old Testament.

A lone, heroic figure somehow emerges from the slaughter--a handsome young Huguenot named La Mole, played by Vincent Perez, a Eurohunk with a body by Michelangelo and the chiseled, pouty face of a Calvin Klein jeans model. (The director poses and photographs this actor, who is barechested and blood-spattered throughout much of the action, with a combination of religious and sexual reverence; he's like Jesus, Jim Morrison, and Daniel-Day Lewis from Last of the Mohicans rolled into one beefy package.)  

La Mole, who is badly wounded in a grueling swordfight, takes refuge in--you guessed it--Margot's bedroom, where's he's nursed back to health and drawn into a passionate affair. In time-honored romance novel fashion, the once spoiled, apolitical Margot learns about the virtues of religious tolerance by way of multiple orgasm; her burning love for the dashing Mole, who flees to Amsterdam to plot his revenge against the French crown, coupled with her revulsion over the massacre, turns her against her own family.

Margot has been a passive figure up to now, more concerned with satisfying her sexual appetites and enjoying the privileges of royalty than taking any kind of political stand. But she's forced by circumstance to grow up and assume heroic stature. She befriends and consoles her broken husband, who converted to Catholicism under threat of death, and she begins to learn how to read the whispered rumors that float through the palace, and to turn impending plots to her advantage.

The film starts losing its grip halfway through. The plot begins unraveling, and secondary characters shift allegiances for reasons that may be hard to follow. Queen Margot is a dense piece of work; so much happens in it, and with such immediacy, that the plot might not make sense until you've seen it twice. You might have to give up and coast along on pure cinematic sensation--and even this might prove difficult for some viewers, because the filmmaker relies on so many monstrous, screen-filling closeups that the film often goes beyond intimacy and into claustrophobia. During some of the close-quarters arguments, and especially during a nasty attempted gang-rape sequence, the movie is downright oppressive.

What holds the whole contraption together is its hell-on-wheels energy, its breathtaking production values, and a cast full of very fine actors who inhabit their roles completely. A few tower over the rest. One is Adjani, who's charismatic in a blatant star-vehicle part (the camera feasts on her creamy body during the sex scenes like a second, unseen lover), but she's generous to her fellow actors; she listens as persuasively as she talks, and her character steadily grows in stature until, by the finale, she seems positively mythic. Another is Daniel Auteuil, who projects such inner decency and strength that he saves poor, victimized Henri from seeming like just another wet noodle.

And my favorite is Jean-Hugues Anglade, a restless, inventive actor with a loopy charm that's all his own. As Charles, the young ruler who resents the responsibilities life has thrust upon him, Anglade has a sweet, blissed-out, vaguely stoned quality that reminded me of the young Mickey Rourke. Almost every move he makes is funny because his expressions always verge on ironic delight and disbelief. You might find your eyes drifting to Anglade even when he's not at the center of the action, because his expressions are so appealingly confused and hilarious. He gives us free reign to laugh when the film goes over the top; he's as amazed and enthralled by the chaos around him as we are.

And Queen Margot demands exactly that sort of response. Its flaws are nearly indistinguishable from its virtues. Director Patrice Chereau spent four years with cowriter Daniele Thompson adapting the script from a highly regarded French novel, but despite its wealth of detail, Queen Margot is never static or boring. There's always something perverse or spectacular going on. Whenever you begin to tire of keeping track of who's doing what to whom, the director zaps you with an assassination, a love scene, or a swordfight (a gimmick that worked for Shakespeare, too). The result is like an NC-17 comic book about French history illustrated by Rembrandt. Thanks to cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot's stunningly dark, rich, tactile images, gloom and desperation have rarely looked as sexy onscreen.

Yet in its desire to infuse history with the immediacy of this evening's newscast, the film probably gets closer to the truth of what it was like to live in that time and place than a cleaner, nobler, more respectable film ever could. It's alive in a way that films about the distant past rarely are--a stirring repudiation of all the mediocre teachers who killed a love of history in their students by reducing tumultuous events to a series of boring names and dates. Queen Margot reminds us that these distant ghosts who fill the pages of encyclopedias and textbooks were flesh-and-blood human beings who loved and fought and died with crazed abandon--fantastic fodder for our movies and our dreams.  

Many people in the court of King George III suspected something wasn't quite right with the old man, but they had no sure way to prove it. Then came the day when King George interrupted a royal concert, pranced up to the orchestra, took the harpsichordist's place at the keyboard, and proceeded to jam like John Belushi doing his Ray Charles-as-Beethoven routine. The incident occurred not in a private meeting, but in public, before dozens of prominent members of the royal court. After that, the court split into distinct camps. One wanted to help the king get better and shield him from harm; the other wanted to play up his sickness and seize power.

This is a marvelous subject for a comedy, and in The Madness of King George, screenwriter Alan Bennett (who also wrote the play on which it's based) and director Nicholas Hytner handle it with sure and steady hands, alternating broad slapstick and hilariously dry verbal riffs with some surprisingly effective moments of pathos and sentiment. The play hews fairly close to historical fact, tracing what happened in the 18th-century period following Britain's loss of the American colonies and the crown's struggle to avoid ceding power to a newly feisty parliament. (It is now believed that George was suffering from porphyria, a metabolic imbalance that creates the illusion of severe mental illness.)

The power struggle that surrounds poor, pathetic George is another variation on the old corruption-beneath-the-glitz story that writers have told and retold over the millennia. What makes it fascinating again is the idea that the bizarre and irrational demands placed on kings and queens are enough to drive any reasonable person stark raving mad. The film hints that in a disturbing way, George's medical condition actually liberates him, giving him an excuse to vent all the base impulses he's suppressed for years.

As played by British actor Nigel Hawthorne (best known stateside for his work in the TV import "Yes, Minister"), the man is an imp trapped in the body of an elder statesman. Once the madness kicks in, he turns into a comic monster who uses the age-old customs governing how royalty are treated as an excuse to have a childishly grand old time. Some of the film's biggest laughs come from the sight of George spewing nonsense phrases or rambling on and on about nothing in particular, then eyeing whoever's listening with a vaguely menacing expression until they suppress their urges to laugh or gasp, and respond with the standard expressions of toadying approval.

His work here conjures the ghosts of several classic screen clowns. During the verbal sparring matches, he comes on like Groucho Marx surrounded by a kingdom full of Margaret Dumonts. During much of the slapstick--particularly a scene in which he wakes up the servants at his castle at the crack of dawn, runs around the surrounding countryside in his nightshirt, and demands that they follow him--he's like a blueblooded cousin of Harpo. And during scenes of bawdy, excremental humor, his expression of dementedly merry enthusiasm suggests Mel Brooks mugging his way through The History of the World, Part 1 (I think that at one point, George actually does exclaim, "It's good to be the king!"--and if he doesn't, the line is unspoken punctuation to everything he says and does, anyway).

There's no special filmmaking excitement on display in The Madness of King George; Hytner's direction reminded me of the smart-yet-bland aura found in a lot of British-produced Ealing Studios comedies from the '50s--except during a couple of striking sequences set inside George's castle, in which assorted hallways, bedchambers, and gigantic stairwells are photographed with an almost Wellesian grandeur. But the film is still immensely involving, primarily because of its large and talented cast. Helen Mirren is a joy as George's devoted wife, Queen Charlotte, who stands by her man even when he can't remember who she is, and Rupert Everett is also quite fine as the foppish Prince of Wales, who schemes to use George's madness as a pretext for seizing power. I was also fond of Rupert Graves, who plays the king's right-hand man and liaison to parliament, the unflappable Captain Grenville, with such an amusingly stiff upper lip that at times he suggests a Chuck Jones cartoon version of a royal bureaucrat.

The performers are so good that they rescue even the clunkiest scenes, like the one in which George and his doctor sit in lawn chairs and perform a passage from that classic of royal madness, King Lear. The scene itself underlines the script's main points a bit too emphatically, but Hawthorne has such a marvelously expressive voice that I didn't really care. While listening to him, you might find yourself thinking, as I did, that George is a sweet man who deserves to be cured, but not until he's finished reading.  

The Madness of King George. Samuel Goldwyn. Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren, Ian Holm, Rupert Everett, Rupert Graves. Written by Alan Bennett, from his play. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Now showing.

Queen Margot. Miramax. Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Vincent Perez. Written by Daniel Thompson and Patrice Chereau. Directed by Patrice Chereau. Now showing.

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