Queen Margot July 6, 2016
Queen Margot doesn’t see the beauty in 16th century era monarchy. While it has the supple bustiers, barbarous dramatics, lavish costumery, and passionate rendezvous in common with its many historical epic peers, the ugliness that oftentimes came along with the then-overwhelming volatile bourgeoisie vs. proletariat relationship is highly focused upon, never to be glossed over in favor of gaiety. Much as we’d like to gawk over its pristine (and appropriately gaudy) design, mass murder, rape, sociopathic scheming — really, altogether brutality — is as much a part of the equation as immaculate conception is.
It’s a revisionist period piece if anything, bodice ripping theatricality with a side of of-the-time overt callousness. Co-writer and director Patrice Chéreau’s brave refusal to take on genre norms is nothing short of revolutionary; it’s one of the few of its kind I can think of that, in addition to its beauteous composition, puts great attention onto the dirty streets leading to the film’s palace of horrors without a hint of romanticism. We remember its more disturbing images more than we do its moments of tranquility, like its titular anti-heroine’s clutching of a lover’s decapitated head, its ghastly subplot that involves a character’s slow poisoning (at his worst, he sweats blood), and, of course, its semi-climactic depiction of 1572’s St. Bartholomew massacre.
But, clocking at nearly three hours, the pioneering dramatics of Queen Margot begin to lose their steam the longer it drags on. Its knowing melodrama, paired with the astonishingly effective ensemble, is vehement enough to never get too lost in Chéreau’s luster. But his and Danièle Thompson’s screenplay is not intimate enough for a movie whose success relies on emotional involvement. With so many characters, so many hidden motivations, and so much artistic panache (much of the film is shot in close-up, subtly revealing such brilliant details as filthy fingernails and droplets of sweat), it’s over-the-top without the humanistic fervor to ensure its coming back down to Earth. The cast is wonderfully emotive — Isabelle Adjani, as Margot, is particularly expressionistic — but we are never much able to feel the same strong gusts of grief, of lust, of fleeting happiness, that these characters so shamelessly do.
But while I’m unafraid to admit that I was a bigger fan of clock-watching than film-watching during Queen Margot’s last half-hour, the movie is far from a failure: it’s a would-be masterpiece that loses its footing the more it basks in its soap opera. It is set in France as the dawn of the 17th century looms, where the de’ Medici dynasty rules the land with unprecedented control. This control, however, is beginning to crack: outsider Catholic and Protestant Huguenots are just as hungry for power as current queen Catherine de’ Medici (Virna Lisi), who would stop at nothing to maintain her family’s unwavering dominance.
Desperate to appease both religious sectors, Catherine forces her Catholic daughter, Margot, to marry Protestant Henri de Bourbon (Daniel Auteuil), known to many as the King of Navarre. The arrangement mostly works — though the sexually insatiable Margot doesn’t take much of an erotic liking to the slightly mousy Henri — but apparent peace is quickly brought down by Catherine’s savage setting in motion of the aforementioned genocide, which leaves nearly 30,000 Protestants slaughtered.
But the film, expectedly, is more about, or, at least, seems to be more about, Margot, and her struggles as an independent woman pushed around by a reign of terror that prefers to use her as a political weapon more often than it does a prospective leader. A lot of Queen Margot concerns her doomed affair with La Môle (Vincent Pérez), a Protestant solider who threatens the de’ Medici’s seemingly endless jurisdiction over the dangerously impotent France.
Chéreau’s histrionic staging is thrilling in and of itself, but Queen Margot’s downfall is not so much a result of inaneness as it the result of its increasingly lethargic drama. For a film that so auspiciously sculpts a world of deceit, temptation, decadence, and malevolence, we find ourselves pressed to care about its going-ons as much as its characters do. If it were the length of an average feature and not an epic, its ardor would be enough to carry it. But for three hours, it’s spread hopelessly thin — even the romance between Margot and La Môle, which is supposed to embody the I Can’t Live Without You cliché without any questions asked, is more a part of the scenery than it is the connector to our emotional palette that it strives to be.
Still, there’s something awe-inspiring for every weak link in Queen Margot. Adjani, among France’s most beautiful and most courageous actresses, throws herself into the role with haughty abandon and gives one of the best performances of her career. Lisi is electrically scheming, a master of manipulation, and Jean-Hugues Anglade, as an accidental victim of slow, wicked poisoning, is a sufferer that arguably gives a face to just what the de’ Medici clan was willing to do during their ruling to maintain their authority.
But the good, good as it is, doesn’t quite outweigh the mundanity that eventually overcomes Queen Margot. It’s a problematic, sometimes laborious, piece of work. But when it hits a stride, it’s pretty magnificent. I just wish Queen Margot could hold that magnificence firm instead of capturing it and losing it with repetitious tedium. B-