Film Reviews

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.)

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Matt Zoller Seitz