In the 1980s, as a reaction to both the pervasive post-modernism of the French New Wave and the rising popularity of low-art genre movies, France’s Ministry of Culture encouraged a renewed focus on “Heritage Cinema” — a designation for movies with high production values and traditional narratives focusing on French history or literature, and preferably infused with nostalgia or glorification the country’s culture. Claude Berri’s two-parter Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources not only fulfilled the Ministry’s wishes on all counts but also became international hits, leading to a series of prestigious period productions over the following decade. Although just as acclaimed as other top Heritage pictures of its era, Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot must count as something of a black sheep among its peers. Rather than glorifying the past, Queen Margot studies one of the bleakest moments in French history, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and does so with feeling, complexity, and a lot of gore.
Isabelle Adjani stars as the title character, Marguerite of Valois — sister of the Catholic King George IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) — whose forced marriage of convenience to the Huguenot King Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) was used a feint toward ending post-Reformation religious wars, but with the real purpose of trapping thousands of important Protestants inside Paris for an easy slaughter. The first hour of Queen Margot is harrowing. While it starts like another great movie, contrasting elaborate wedding festivities with deadly power brokering in hushed chambers, it soon becomes brutal. As told by Alexandre Dumas, in his embellished historical novel La Reine Margot, the ensuing horrors activated Marguerite from a libertine teenager who disdained the political deceit of her indifferent marriage into an impassioned opponent of her family’s bloody intrigues.
It would be easy to simply laud Queen Margot’s eye-popping costumes and production design, celebrate yet another intense display from Adjani, and maybe direct an eye-roll toward some of the more egregious narrative contrivances involving Marguerite’s lover La Môle (Vincent Perez); but there is something more interesting at play in the film’s treatment of Margaret’s complex Catholicism. As a pampered royal in an amoral family, Marguerite is depicted as carelessly lascivious (and even incestuous), living up to her colorful reputation by seeking a random lover from the streets of Paris on her own wedding night; at the same time, however, the ritual of her Catholic marriage means something to her, even if she is not sure what. She feels compelled by some higher power to defend her endangered husband from her cutthroat family, and strives to prove faithful to him according to a platonic ideal of fidelity even while pining for her lover. Chéreau thankfully doesn’t try to unravel or make sense of these inner-conflicts: his Marguerite is, really, a portrait of the contradictions of Reformation France as embodied by one iconic figure. It’s hard to think of someone better than Adjani to play such a combustible mixture of sex and fury and faith and sorrow and handle it all so fluidly. Given that Dumas’ novel has been accused of giving too much credit to slanderous anti-Marguerite propaganda, that she emerges from Queen Margot as a pioneer of tolerance and hero of France is even more remarkable, and a credit to the fine work by Adjani, Chéreau and everyone else involved in this immaculate production.