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One Bourbon, Some Scots, And A Lovely Margot - "Queen Margot" (France, 1994)

Isabelle Adjani and Dominique Blanc in 'Queen Margot.'
Isabelle Adjani and Dominique Blanc in 'Queen Margot.'

‘Queen Margot’ screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Wednesday, May 28th at 6:30 pm.

As passionately realized and practically constructed a historical epic as you’re likely to see, Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot (La Reine Margot) (France, 1994) is unmissable, especially in its rare big screen presentations. There are no outsized landmark performances – Hepburns, O’Tooles, Burtons or Blanchettes - and yet this is some of the finest work of many of these renowned French actors, selflessly committed to the story and the dark and violent tide of history.

Catherine de Medici, the Italian daughter of Lorenzo di Medici, became Queen of France upon marrying Henry II in 1533. In one of those 'really?!' historical moments, Henry II was killed in a freak jousting tournament accident by one of his own captains. Their son, Francis (fifteen-years-old), became King Francis II in 1559, but only reigned for a little over a year. He had married Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, (arranged by Henry when Francis was 4 and she 6) a year earlier, and was King Consort of Scotland as well. But much of France and Scotland’s day-to-day political affairs were handled by the House of Guise, Mary’s Scottish uncles. France was staunchly Catholic, but the Protestant Huguenot uprising was simmering; the arranged marriage strengthened France’s Catholic foundation. But Francis’ health mysteriously and rapidly deteriorated. Some suspected poisoning, but he most likely died of meningitis in 1560. The French had lost claim to Scotland over the Treaty of Edinburgh (with a little malicious help from Elizabeth I of England), and, upon Francis’ death, Mary returned to Scotland. The next of Catherine’s sons, Charles, was only ten years old; upon his inheriting the kingship, Catherine was retained as his Queen Consort, served alongside King Charles IX, and, honestly, had no intention of surrendering her renewed hold over France for years afterwards.

As our film starts, Catherine (a ferocious and wonderful, Game Of Thrones-worthy, Virna Lisi) has herself arranged a marriage; her daughter, Marguerite de Valois (IsabelleAdjani) (youngest sibling of the three brothers: the late Francis, Charles and Henri, Duke of Anjou) will marry Henri Bourbon (Daniel Auteuil), the King of Navarre. (Navarre is primarily the northeast corner of Spain – its capital is Pamplona – and, back then, incorporated the French province of Aquitaine as well.) Navarre was also one of the strongholds of the Protestant Huguenots, with the Flemish as an ally, and Catherine ostensibly sought to unite these increasingly hostile factions with this wedding. Many historians, and this particular film, argue that the wedding was simply a ruse to attract thousands of Huguenots, and their leaders, to Paris for the royal wedding, whereupon they would be mercilessly slaughtered in the streets. King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade, perhaps never better), now twenty-two, numbered among his mentors Gaspard de Coligny (Jean-Claude Brialy), a Huguenot who gained Charles’ confidence in the course of a series of earlier minor reconciliations. But when the Guises, still tightly aligned to Catherine from the previous king’s reign, assassinated Coligny a few days after the wedding, French Catholics fought viciously against the infuriated Huguenots still in Paris, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre ensued. In Paris, and quickly throughout France, over 10,000 Huguenots were attacked and killed. Henri de Navarre escaped execution by agreeing to convert to Catholicism, stayed in court, and a few of his fellow leaders escaped back to Navarre.

Marguerite de Valois (Margot) is a willfully indulgent young royal; beautiful, fashionable, and not-so-secretly promiscuous. She’ll go through with the marriage for God and country, reluctantly, but she has no intention of consummating it with a man she derisively sees as a King of goatherders. But once the treachery starts hitting the fan, Margot tries to play both sides – preserving Henri from outright betrayal while still remaining loyal to her brother, the King. This is seen as moral weakness, and a failure of loyalty, by her current lover, Guise (Miguel Bosé), and, faced with the intolerable prospect of an empty bed, she goes trolling through the streets in disguise for a likely suitor. And she finds a superb one – La Môle (a smoldering Vincent Perez). Unbeknownst to her, La Môle is a loyal Huguenot insurgent whose father was a great friend of Coligny’s. Knocking one off in the alley just a few feet from the crowded street, with her resourceful attendant Henriette de Nevers (Dominique Blanc; superb support in a tiny role) standing guard, Margot is had and had well, in, for both, unforgettable fashion. When the massacre starts, and La Môle is fiercely engaged with the relentless Catholic mercenary Coconnas (Claudio Amendola), he finds Margot’s chambers; she takes him in and sees that his copious wounds are tended to. Having recuperated over a day or so, he leaves the house, finds Coconnas, and they beat hell out of each other again. Taken for dead in a roundup of bodies en route to a mass grave, they are both discovered to be still alive by the court hangman (doing gravedigger duty as well), spared from the pit, and La Môle is nursed back to health by the hangman himself.

And so the film continues, an expertly orchestrated pageant of rise and fall, doom and redemption, enemy and new friend, sacrifice and betrayal, with an insistent barrage of conspiracies, partisan treachery, double-crosses, skewerings, throat slashings, poisonings and carnal couplings, all historically credible, all superbly acted, all thrillingly staged, shot, scored and edited.

This film, Michael Caton-Jones superb Rob Roy (1995), and Julie Taymor’s bleak and astonishing Titus (1999) are among my favorite historical epic potboilers. I recommend this film unreservedly, and only wish I could have alerted you to its earlier Siskel screenings sooner (though no one should have sat inside this weekend, I must admit). The DVD is available on Netflix (not streaming), and it shows up elsewhere from time to time. But see this film as big as you can as often as you can. It’s Patrice Chereau’s film masterpiece (the late Chereau also had an impressively vibrant theater and opera oeuvre as well), the last, and maybe best, of the non-CGI historical epics of the 20th century.

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