The grandiose Queen Margot aspires to the mantle of Shakespearean tragedy but plays more like bad Grand Guignol theater. Sprawling, bloody costumer about the dastardly deeds of 16th-century French royalty is a frenzy of religious conflict, personal betrayal, raw passion and enough killing for all three parts of The Godfather. Celebrated theater and opera director Patrice Chereau plays the swirling action to the highest balcony, encouraging his actors to emote and gesticulate without restraint.
In a France dominated by the Italian exile Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi) and nominally ruled by her son Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a gesture is made toward peace through the arranged marriage of the Catholic Margot (Isabelle Adjani), Charles’ sister, and the Protestant Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil).
Almost at once, the rulers at the Louvre decide that the Protestants must be wiped out, resulting in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre that saw perhaps 6,000 killed in Paris on Aug. 23-24, 1572. Henri advisedly converts to Catholicism, while Margot is awakened amorously by the dashing Protestant La Mole (Vincent Perez), who is protected by his lover before embarking abroad to gather an army to fight the treacherous papists.
Beyond the disagreeableness of all the characters and their behavior, a chief problem is that Margot is basically a sideline player. Similarly, Henri is an annoyingly ineffectual type until he surprisingly intervenes on behalf of the king. La Mole is a standard-issue heroic lover type without a distinctive personality.
Chereau and his co-scenarist no doubt had in mind parallels to modern Europe, where Catholics and protestants still fight and religious intolerance is once again resulting in slaughter. But the focus is almost exclusively on the carnage rather than on understanding it.
Physically, pic has been executed on the grandest scale on locations in France and Portugal. Still, Philippe Rousselot’s exceedingly mobile camera stays in claustrophobically tight on the characters much of the time.
[Outside France, pic was released in a 143-min. ‘international version’ at the behest of its US distributor, though the original version was subsequently issued on video in the UK in 1996.]