directed by Patrice Chereau
starring Isabelle Adjani, Vincent Perez and Virna Lisi
at Sony Nickelodeon
The French are obsessed with their own history, and, fortunately for them, they possess a great a deal of history in which to indulge. In "Queen Margot," the newest French film to reach our shores, there is quite a bit of history, but even more indulgence and obsession.
"Queen Margot," based on the eponymous novel by Alexandre Dumas, recounts the events surrounding the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. At the time, religious differences threatened the stability of the French kingdom; the Catholic crown and the French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were at each other's throats. In an effort to effect a reconciliation, the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, arranged a marriage between her daughter Margot and the Protestant Henri of Navarre. The peace that the marriage was to bring about did not last; six days after the wedding, Catholics slaughtered 3,000 Huguenots in Paris and 20,000 more in the countryside.
As even this briefest of summaries will convey, the plot of "Queen Margot" is convoluted. In the European version, the film began in medias res, on the day of the wedding. For the benefit of Americans, for whom the sacred history of France is not second nature, the producers have added a lengthy explanatory prologue, much like David Lynch did in "Dune." While the prologue does help to clarify some things, it cannot disguise the fact that director Patrice Chereau, most famous for staging Wagner's Ring in Bayreuth, has a poor command of film narrative.
The introductory wedding scene is rather impressive and sets the tone for much of the film. Margot (Isabelle Adjani) and Henri (Daniel Auteuil), sumptuously dressed (the mind boggles at just how much Adjani's dress must have cost), kneel in the cathedral while a chorus the size of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings in the background. Chereau impresses the luxury and pomp of the scene upon the viewer's mind, but undermines the splendor when, after Margot refuses to say "I do," her brother Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) hits her in the back of the head so that she assents.
One suspects that one ought to feel awe and delight, it is a pity one does not. So much money and effort spent to capture that brutal and ridiculous gesture. It's a feeling which the viewer will experience several times during the course of "Queen Margot," as if Chereau hoped to have one awestruck merely on the merits of enormous expense. It's an attitude which Louis XIV, the biggest conspicuous consumer of them all, would have understood, as a directorial technique however, it fails to deliver. After the wedding scene, "Queen Margot" disintegrates into the byzantine intrigues leading up to the film's centerpiece, the massacre. There is an amusing bit where Margot, who refuses to consummate the marriage with Henri, goes out into the street to look for a man with whom to spend her wedding night. She wanders exquisitely lit rues wearing an indigo cloak and a domino, a man hungry diva on the hunt. The camp value of the scene cannot be underestimated. She runs into La Mole, a sensitive Protestant stud (Vincent Perez, last seen warming the cockles of Catherine Deneuve's heart in "Indochine") and has passionate sex against an alley wall with him.
Apart from this scene, the film's first hour is unimaginably tedious. One keeps praying for the massacre to come, and when it does come, it is a beaut. Some reviewers have accused Chereau of cribbing from "Schindler's List" in this set piece, but apart from being chronologically impossible, the reviewers miss the point about visual influences. When Chereau stages the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, he has the entire tradition of French art behind him. The artfully twisted limbs and contorted white bodies come not from "Schindler's List" but from The Raft of the Medusa and The Death of Sardanapalus. Delacroix and Gericault sit on Chereau's shoulders like twin angels of visual excess. (Chereau also includes nods to Rembrandt; Pascal Greggory as Margot's brother Anjou is a dead ringer for Rembrandt's Polish Rider.)
The massacre scenes, besides being the best part of "Queen Margot," also function as an illustration of film's subtext about ethnic cleansing. The situation in Bosnia is clearly on the film makers' minds, and Chereau re-enforces this connection through his choice of the film's composer, Goran Bregovic. Bregovic, born in Sarajevo to a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, fills "Queen Margot" with medieval Balkan melodies and the voice of Ofra Haza, which at first seem incongruous in a film so French but which later make perfect sense.
The rest of the film involves a silly love story between La Mole and Margot, sometimes no more than an excuse for them to display their respective endowments and to pose prettily in profile. Needless to say, La Mole and Margot, like all good French lovers since Abelard and Heloise, are doomed and terrifically tragic. There are also poisonings, escape attempts, decapitations, incestuous rapes and boar hunts, all of which make "Queen Margot" a soap opera of historic order.
The performances in "Queen Margot" run the gamut from the risible to the sublime, sometimes not much of a gamut at all. Isabelle Adjani is, well, Isabelle Adjani. No matter which film she stars in, she is always the ill-fated Romantic heroine with the impossibly white skin and the more impossibly blue eyes. "Queen Margot" is no exception, and now that Adjani is pregnant with Daniel Day-Lewis' love child, she seems to have carried her performances into life.
Jean-Hugues Anglade, last seen in "Killing Zoe," has a blast as King Charles IX, demented, infirm, childish and incestuous. He even gets a wonderful death scene where he literally sweats blood. Vincent Perez has precious little to do besides being precious and using his melting pulchritude to best advantage. Virna Lisi, who took the acting prize at Cannes, gives the best performance in the movie. Her take on Catherine de Medici moves between the campy and the affecting. Those who speak French may have to fight the temptation to imitate her thick Italian accent. Playing Catherine de Medici as a cross between a mafia boss and an overprotective mother, Lisi makes her the only three-dimensional character in the movie.
The movie ultimately belongs to cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Here one sees the Rousselot of "Interview with the Vampire" and "Henry and June," the master of the low-light situation. Rousselot's technique when shooting dusk and dawn is peerless; he has a special talent for the color white, making it phosphorescent and radiant. The scenes of white hounds during a dawn boar hunt are enough to leave one breathless.
"Queen Margot" frequently takes one's breath away, but, more often than not, it is as a result of trying to keep up with the tortured plot, poorly structured narrative and overcooked performances. Intermittent breathlessness is not enough of a reason to go see a film, you can run around the block and save $7.