Raucous, bawdy, sexy and violent, Queen Margot is history as feverishly overwrought soap opera -- history painted in tears, sweat, blood and semen, with a very broad brush.
In telling the alternately romantic and tragic tale of the title character, who survived a ghastly royal power struggle that pitted Catholic against Protestant and royal against royal in 16th-century France, writer-director Patrice Chereau jams the camera into the action, pushing the viewer deep into palace skullduggery, religious warfare and tremulous carnal encounters. The camera gets so close to so much splendor and horror that at times the film is simply overwhelming.
Queen Margot has the glossy yet kinetically crude quality common to period pictures by Alan Parker and Ridley Scott -- impeccably accurate sets and costumes wedded to romance-novel emotions and seductively gloomy performances. It's the kind of movie in which sword wounds gush with the force of miniature geysers and a prince demonstrates his passion for a young lady by orally servicing her.
Like Dangerous Liaisons and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, the film seems at first glance like an anti-Puritan answer to the historical epics of classic Hollywood, with their static camera setups, clean-scrubbed stars and pseudo-elevated dialogue. But in its own base, nasty way, Queen Margot is just as heightened and unreal as the movies it reacts against; in spite of Chereau's overpowering sense of physical realism, the movie is still the visual equivalent of purple prose, replete with close-ups of hacked limbs and exposed brain tissue and naked, copulating actors gasping dialogue along the lines of, "I'll die if I can't have you tonight!"
The movie's opening section recalls key passages from the Godfather trilogy and The Deer Hunter -- a big family celebration followed by an ordeal of bloodshed and horror. It's August 1572, and France is embroiled in a holy war between Catholics, led by established French royalty, and the upstart Huguenots, Protestants desperate for religious freedom and a slice of the nation's political pie.
Chereau, a sometime actor and theatrical whiz, spent four years with co-writer Daniele Thompson adapting Alexandre Dumas' highly regarded novel Queen Margot, but the result doesn't feel vague or unfocused in the way of a lot of pet projects with long gestation periods. Chereau's interested in the details of who did what to whom and for what reason, but he doesn't obsess over them. He treats history the way all good dramatists should: as a well from which to draw stories of eternal human emotions -- love, ambition, betrayal, murder.
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And although it runs almost two and a half hours, Queen Margot never feels ponderous. It throws you into the middle of this strange, long-gone world without much explanation (save a poorly composed opening crawl that reads suspiciously like an SAT question) and expects you to find your way around intuitively, by latching onto certain subplots and characters and guessing what's going to happen next and for what reason. Yet for a movie packed with so much detail, Queen Margot is never static or boring. There's always something perverse or spectacular going on. Whenever you begin to despair of keeping track of the numerous characters and personal feuds, the director hits you with a sex scene or a sword fight (a gimmick that worked for Shakespeare, too).
The result is like an NC-17 comic book about French history illustrated by Rembrandt. Queen Margot is a stirring repudiation of all the mediocre teachers who snuffed out the love of history in their students by reducing tumultuous events to a series of bloodless names and dates. The film reminds us that these distant ghosts who fill up the pages of encyclopedias and textbooks were flesh-and-blood human beings who loved and fought and died with crazed abandon -- fantastic fodder for our movies and our dreams.
Directed by Patrice Chereau. With Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil and Jean-Hughes Anglade.