It’s always a pleasure to be forcibily introduced to a movie you’d otherwise have skipped, and finding out that it’s extraordinary. Thus it was with the 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s novel Queen Margot, which Nathaniel picked for this week’s episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot. I knew a few things about the film: it was an Oscar nominee for Moidele Bickel’s costumes, it was about the politically momentous life of Marguerite de Valois (Isabelle Adjani), Catholic wife of the future King Henri IV of France (Daniel Auteuil, perfectly grimy), and it was from a period of time in Western cinema when both of those things all but stated outright “this is unwatchable middlebrow tosh!!” So even though the Oscar connection guaranteed I’d watch it eventually, I haven’t been in any hurry. The 158-minute running time wasn’t an enticement either.
It still isn’t (the film’s first half is almost objectively more kinetic and visceral than the latter), but boy, did I misjudge the rest. Queen Margot is always in the general wheelhouse of handsomely prestigious art house movies from the 1990s, but it’s a basically perfect representative of the species. Good on director Patrice Chéreau for handling the messy, violent matter of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and what came after with such live-wire urgency; good on Bickel and production designers Richard Peduzzi and Olivier Radot for creating a mise en scène that feels at once fussy and grotesque, like an 18th Century painting that fell into a horror movie and was given screaming, chaotic life. Good on you and can I have all your babies to Philippe Rousselot, whose darkness-soaked cinematography basically looks like Gordon Willis was accidentally hired to shoot a BBC Shakespeare adaptation. And a nod as well to the cast, made up of people using the archness of period dialogue and attitudes to create something that feels remote but not ancient. Particularly Virna Lisi, a well-deserved winner at Cannes for playing Catherine de’ Medici as a particularly toxic spitting cobra.
The film’s twin themes are the crushing weight of historical inevitability and the crushing weight of lust, and the temptation to cast an eye on one of the film’s sweaty, physical, sexy (or not) sequences of overclocked libido was certainly there, but in the end, I never shook off the desire to go with a shot nearly from the very beginning of the movie. It is an image that hangs over both the plot and my own experience of watching the film.
At its simplest level, Queen Margot is about a woman who is stuck in a life she actively does not want, and who therefore lashes out against it. At its most complex, Queen Margot requires having a book of French history open in front of you while you’re watching to keep track of the political and religious tensions that every character has to think of, every time they take any action. I won’t go so far as to say that this image perfectly sums up that entire range, but it kind of comes close? It’s such a heavy image: the domineering presence of Catholicism pulls the whole frame down, pressing upon Margot (and the barely-visible Protestant Henri). The graphic perfection of the frame is just really something – all that black space, cut in half by a hovering, almost bat-like body of Christ; the thick white line of the bishops’ mitres; the busy vertical lines of the indistinguishable clergymen.
All of this could not look more like a painting if Rousselot had etched brush strokes onto his lens, which already matters for a lot: though the movie is suffused with modern energy, this image is anything but timeless. It demands things of the characters, and forces them into the role of 16th Century historical figures whether they and the movie want it or not. It’s also so utterly threatening – there is a merciless, autocratic force behind this image. It is not at all a romantic wedding we are seeing: it is a grueling, antagonistic ritual.
There is so much barely-contained, dangerously erratic (and erotic) life in Queen Margot, but I never forgot the embalmed formalism of this moment. This is a movie in which life is boxed in and controlled and contained, and in the context of this drama, it all springs from this scene: a woman being turned into a pawn, an object, a shape in a composition, and resenting every bit of it. And it’s somehow obvious that it’s all going to play out that way, even from the time this shot rolls around right at the start. History looms over this film, and these characters, and it is not a pleasant history.