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.” Unlike the gangster epic, however, this adaptation of a historically inspired Alexandre Dumas novel doesn’t generate any fascination for its murderous characters, and is a mostly unpleasant chore to slog through. With its star-laden cast and heavy promotion, Claude Berri’s latest jumbo-budget period piece may fly commercially in Europe, but U.S. B.O. will undoubtedly be closer to “Germinal” than to “Jean de Florette.”
Celebrated theater and opera director Patrice Chereau plays the swirling action to the highest balcony, encouraging his actors to emote and gesticulate without restraint to enact a nasty story of outsized emotions and grisly historical events.
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, however, 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.
Messy strands of too many plots and subplots begin to pull together in the late going. Things come to a head when some poison Catherine intends for the detested Henri ends up polishing off her son Charles instead, prompting the beginning of the end for the Medici clan.
Thematically, Chereau and his co-scenarist, Daniele Thompson, no doubt had in mind parallels to modern Europe, where Catholics and Protestants still fight and religious intolerance is once again resulting in slaughter and a changing political landscape.
But the focus is almost exclusively on the carnage and its immediate motivations, rather than on understanding it or providing any philosophical framework for it.
Performances are almost uniformly over the edge into hysteria. Adjani forever seems to be rushing about, Auteuil is hamstrung by a passive character, and Anglade hams it up as the bloodthirsty monarch.
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, and the palette is depressingly dark. Costumes and production design are splendid.
For U.S. consumption, Miramax could easily be understood if it were to consider some shortening.