All Hail Queen Margot (1994)

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To view Queen Margot click here.

Anyone who read my appraisal of The Brontë Sisters (1979) a little while ago shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorite actresses of all time is Isabelle Adjani, who had a significant impact on my young moviegoing mind in the 1980s and early 1990s. Her list of towering French and English language performances is formidable, but the fact that she’s rarely been seen on American screens in recent years speaks more to the state of our foreign film scene than her work as an actress. The last Adjani star vehicle to make a significant splash here was Queen Margot (1994), which was released as an awards contender by Miramax in December of that year. In a familiar Miramax move, the film was drastically shortened (by 15 minutes) and given a somewhat puzzling romantic ad campaign, which ended up shocking moviegoers who instead got a bloody tale of regal and religious treachery and violence. Don’t worry; the version running now on FilmStruck as part of our “Regicide!” theme is the original 158-minute director’s cut!

That’s not to say that Adjani has been slacking since then; she’s been busy doing a film or two almost every year and had a terrific showcase as part of Jean-Paul Rappaneau’s delicious ensemble film, Bon Voyage (2003), and she had a nice comic turn in the semi-anthology French Women (2014), which has yet to get American distribution of any kind. In any case, she’s magnificent here as Marguerite de Valois, who becomes Queen Margot at the start of the film without uttering a single word as she’s forcibly married to Hugenot monarch Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). The ongoing religious strife in France is looking for a quick fix, so binding her, the daughter of the conniving Catherine de Medici (international glamour queen Virna Lisi) and sister of Catholic King Charles IX (Jean-Hughes Anglade), seems to do the trick. However, it’s all part of a grander scheme to execute the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of countless Protestants.

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The fact that this is part of our “Regicide!” series isn’t really a spoiler as there are multiple royal figures in this film whose lives are in danger, and I’ll never tell how it all pans out if you aren’t familiar with the real-life basis for the story. However, you should also be aware that this isn’t the kind of film you should watch as a historical tract; it’s definitely a French perspective on the events and derived from an 1845 novel by Alexandre Dumas, so consider it more of an ornate, sweeping period drama with some historical facts and figures sprinkled in. The much-touted love story angle involving Margot and a soldier named La Môle (Vincent Pérez, who was kind of an arthouse “it boy” for a year or so) accounts for a fairly small amount of the running time, though it does deliver more nudity than you would’ve found had this been made a few decades earlier. (Interestingly, Miramax also swept up a swoony scene from the cutting room floor and awkwardly inserted in back in the film to justify its poster art of the lovers swathed in a red cloak; you won’t find it in the full European cut, and with good reason.)

Something that wasn’t quite so easy to appreciate when this film opened is its amazing cast, a confluence of European stars both established and upcoming thanks to the involvement of French, Italian and German financing. Auteuil was still riding high from his stellar work in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring (both 1986) and Claude Sautet’s A Heart in Winter (1991), and Anglade, still best known for his unabashed performance in Betty Blue (1986), had proven his international chops again as the romantic lead in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990).

However, it’s when you start to dig deeper in the cast that things really get interesting. Spanish pop star and occasional arthouse thespian Miguel Bosé, who appeared in everything from Suspiria (1977) to High Heels (1991), gets to put his puppy dog eyes to good use as Henry I, Duke of Guise, and Thomas Krestschmann, who’s been straddling Hollywood and European productions for decades and has been most identified around the globe now as Baron Strucker in two Marvel Studios superhero films, gets a few nice moments as Nançay. There’s even a nod to the French New Wave with the casting of Jean-Claude Brialy, who had starring roles for pretty much every single notable French director in the 1960s, pops up here in a couple of scenes as Admiral de Coligny. However, the real scene stealer here is Asia Argento in one of her first real adult roles; the daughter of director Dario Argento (there’s that Suspiria connection again) and future director of Scarlet Diva (2000) and the very controversial The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004), she brings an intense, carnal energy to her role and gets one of the most shocking moments in the film. (There’s no way you’ll have trouble spotting it.) Anyone familiar with the live-wire quality of her later roles after she transitioned out of child and teen acting here will see its genesis as she gives her all to this performance.

Of course, the film’s effectiveness ultimately must be credited to its late director and co-scenarist Patrice Chéreau, who also cast his real-life partner, Pascal Greggory, in the pivotal role of Henri, Duke of Anjou, and had given Anglade one of his first major roles in the excellent gay-themed film L’homme blessé (1983). Not exactly the most prolific of filmmakers, Chéreau had a strong theater background that not only made him a great actors’ director but a particularly fearless one as well, including his reunion with Pérez as a transgendered character in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) and his boundary-pushing explicit mainstream film, Intimacy (2001), with Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance (who, oddly enough, was dubbed by Anglade for the French release). However, it’s still Queen Margot that really cemented Chéreau’s international reputation and gave him the chance to become a major Hollywood director, which he gracefully turned down. Needless to say, the fact that the director and the actor playing Henri were a real-life couple also makes this film a particularly interesting choice for Pride Month if you’re looking for some out-of-left-field programming associations!

Nathaniel Thompson

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