History equals histrionics in the first half of scribe-helmer Jo Baier’s “Henry of Navarre,” a two-headed beast that also contains a more staid and slightly more nuanced biopic of the French king who wrote religious freedom into law in 1598. Adapted from two novels and shot with two longer TV movies in mind, Baier’s single, 155-minute theatrical edit feels like a royal double bill with a split personality. The austere-looking, breasts-and-blood-filled epic bows theatrically in Germany on March 4 and has sold to several Euro territories but will be more at home as a high-end tube item.
Pic is based on two historical novels by German scribe Heinrich Mann (who also wrote the work that inspired Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel”). Mann is a sibling of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, whose novel “Buddenbrooks” was also recently somewhat awkwardly adapted for cinema and TV (some crew worked on both, including d.p. Gernot Roll).
Intro quickly sketches the historical context of the mid-16th century, when young Henry grew up in the Protestant (or Huguenot) southwestern kingdom of Navarre while France was dominated by the Catholics.
An early visit to Navarre by Nostradamus (Fritz Marquardt), with dramatic shadows, splashy editing and an ominous score, immediately sets the over-the-top tone. Baier then ups the ante with a scene of pure camp at the Parisian royal court, where the evil queen mother, Catherine de’ Medici (Hannelore Hoger), bites into the bare ass of her porcelain-skinned daughter, Margot (Armelle Deutsch), as punishment for sleeping with the enemy.
The mentally unstable King Charles IX (Ulrich Noethen) and his brother D’Anjour (Devid Striesow), an effeminate gay man with skulls tattooed on his stomach, complete the family tableau. By portraying them as paper-thin, power-hungry loonies, Baier succeeds in suggesting the title character might be the only sane person in the room, but little else. Still, this rollicking and rowdy take on French history never bores as it cuts between Ridley Scott-style battle scenes, violent bouts of sex and scenes of court intrigue.
Though Henry professes to hate war, by 1572, his Huguenot military prowess has scared de’ Medici into suggesting he marry her daughter, hoping this might put an end to the religious wars. But their wedding leads to the horrific St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which an angry Catholic mob kills the Huguenot wedding guests in Paris, a sequence that Baier stages with clever use of off-camera action.
Things become more nuanced in the pic’s second part when, after the Valois have died in rapid succession, the French throne is finally within Henry’s grasp — if it weren’t for his religion. Finally the subject of his own film, Henry is allowed to grow into a man facing big decisions for himself, his allies and the entire country — though parallels with today’s world barely break the surface. Appropriately, the second part feels more contemplative, with less hyperactive lensing.
As the titular good king, the gruffily handsome Boisselier plays things straight, while most of the other actors ham it up; Hoger’s de’ Medici is the queen of scenery-chewing in a film full of contestants.
The austerely furnished castles have a lived-in look further enhanced by the film’s somewhat faded color palette, though the pic lacks the grandiose vistas or intricate camera movements that would justify its widescreen treatment. Other tech credits are strong, with the exception of the generic score co-written by Hans Zimmer.
Pic shown at the Berlin fest was the German-language version, with all the foreign thesps dubbed.