‘Queen Margot’ Is a History That Only Goes Downhill

Patrice Chéreau's multiple César winning film receives a lavish 20th anniversary edition from Cohen.

Cohen Media’s reissue of Patrice Chéreau’s 1994 historical drama Queen Margot has numerous things going for it, not least of which is the lovely Isabelle Adjani in the title role. Adjani won the award for Best Actress at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and if this award is curious—she doesn’t actually do a great deal besides look haughty and, occasionally, haunted—it’s indicative of the film’s high profile. This is a lush, colorful, bloody, melodramatic historical piece, whose 160-minute runtime is filled with a myriad of villains and its fair share of sex, blood, and ruthlessness. In a way, it’s perfect for our own Game of Thrones-informed era of entertainment. Plus, it’s in French, so you can tell yourself you’re doing something cultural.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel, the film’s plot is simple enough in essence, although the parade of quick-talking characters and their complex relationships may leave some viewers a bit bewildered. This is especially true if one is busy reading the subtitles rather than the actors’ faces. It’s 1572, and France has been riven by a series of religious wars between Catholics and upstart Protestants called Hugenots. In an attempt to heal the divide, the Queen mother, Catherine de Medici, has offered her daughter Margot in marriage to Henri, King of Navarre. The film opens with the marriage ceremony, in which family on both sides offer up snarky commentary on the trustworthiness of the other.

This is followed, as marriages generally are, by the reception, which in this case involves plenty of groping and debauchery on the part of the Catholics because, hey, Catholics were like that back then. The Protestants are duly put out by it all, and then soon afterward, they are slaughtered en masse. Because hey, Catholics were like that back then.

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, as it became known, was certainly a bloody enough event, and the film brings this home in a wrenching sequence that manages to convey the horror and bloodshed of the evening without reveling in gore. This is all upsetting to Margot, who despite herself has grown rather fond of her arranged husband—who survives—notwithstanding the affair she began on her wedding night with a random Protestant guy she met and screwed in the street while disguised as a prostitute. Look, it sounds better in French, okay?

Ultimately, this story has only one place it can go —downhill for everybody concerned—and viewers hoping for a happy ending are probably watching the wrong movie. (It’s got a massacre in it, after all.) Despite the weighty subject matter, though, this is a surprisingly trifling film. It plays with big thematic issues of religion and death and love and sex and desire, but it doesn’t actually have a very great deal to say about any of them. “Life is hell and people are pigs,” as my father used to say semi-ironically; the movie takes this notion and runs with it.

Performances are generally strong, with Adjani doing a fine job of looking spooked by the proceedings and the longsuffering Henri, played by Daniel Autueil, generating sympathy as a powerful guy trapped in a powerless role. The standout here is Jean-Hugues Anglade, who plays Margot’s brother and King, Charles IX; his portrayal of the regent as a dithering boy desperate for love and approval is the strongest performance in the film. Also notable is Virna Lisi as the malevolent Catherine de Medici, the engine of disaster who drives this whole sorry historical train wreck.

Cohen Media’s presentation of this film is outstanding, with superb picture quality, deep shadows, rich colors and easy-to-read subtitles. The sound is crisp, and few if any flickers or artefacts are noticeable in the print. The cinematography throughout is striking and often beautiful, even when portraying scenes of desolation, both environmental and psychological, and this presentation does it justice.

Bonus features include a commentary from film historian Richard Pena, who sheds useful light both on the historical context and the process of filmmaking itself. (His breathless enthusiasm can be a bit grating, but oh well.) Also included is a nicely-produced 28-page booklet featuring both an interview with the director and his notes from 1992, when the project was still taking shape—a fascinating glimpse into the film’s pre-production. The booklet complements both the film and the commentary. Altogether, it’s an impressive package.

For aficionados of lushly-filmed historical drama, Queen Margot is worth a look. More casual fans should proceed with caution, though, as the film’s deliberate pacing and things-can-only-get-worse storyline fail to quite match its outstanding visuals, and the relentless grimness might put off some viewers.

RATING 7 / 10