La Reine Margot features many of the then leading lights of French cinema, Isabelle Adjani in the title role, Queen Margot, Daniel Auteuil as King Henri of Navarre, Jean-Hugues Anglade as Charles IX and Vincent Perez as Margot’s protestant lover, de la Môle.
Though my knowledge of 16th century French history is shaky at best, I’m guessing this film is as historically accurate as Braveheart, however it tells a good yarn. It is set in 1572, on the eve of the St Bartholomew’s Massacre – the worst massacre in French history. At the time France, like most of the rest of Europe, is being torn apart by religious wars and the entrenched religious hatred and distrust between Catholics and Protestants. In an attempt to bring the two communities together the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici arranges for her daughter Margot to marry the protestant King of Navarre, Henri. As a result of the nuptials, a large number of prominent Protestants and their entourages are quartered in the mainly catholic Paris. At the same time Queen Catherine’s influence over her son, King Charles IX has been replaced by that of Admiral Coligny, himself a leading protestant. This shift in power has unsettled both Catherine and her other sons, the Duke of Anjou and Alençon as well as Margot’s catholic lover, de Guise.
La Reine Margot depicts the power play between the various members of the French royal family. If our royal family has its own trials and tribulations, it’s nothing, it would seem, compared to 16th century monarchs who risked their own death and those of their loved ones as an occupational hazard. No one can trust anyone. Henri of Navarre is on tenterhooks throughout, expecting to be assassinated at any moment. He survives various assassination attempts only through sheer good fortune – within the timeframe of the film at least. (He was later to be assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610). Initiating most of the intrigue is Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother, dressed in black, she moves through the film like a Black Widow Spider, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who she believes stands in her way. The king, Charles IX, is the pathetic result of an overbearing mother who has a family he keeps secret from the royal family as he suspects – with some justification – that Catherine would have them murdered once aware of their existence. Margot has a string of loveless liaisons only too mindful that if she allows herself to truly love someone, her own family will use that against her and destroy them in the process. For her mother she is nothing but a political pawn and as for her brothers, her relationship with them seems dubious if not incestuous.
The film makes plain that Margot is forced into this marriage at a time when Admiral Coligny is using his influence over the King to side with the Protestants to protect Flanders against the catholic Spanish, then with the largest army in Europe. This is something that the rest of the royal family and the catholic courtiers want to stop at all costs. Coligny has now become a father figure to the king and is the first person the king feels he can trust which given his family is not setting the barriers particularly high.
Henri of Navarre agrees not to consummate the marriage and in return persuades Margot to be his ally. Meanwhile on the orders of Catherine an attempt is made on Coligny’s life. The assassination fails but fearing a backlash from the Protestants who have amassed in Paris for the wedding, the king, encouraged by his family, agrees to the assassination of the leading Protestant figures and their entourage which in turns leads to the massacre of the thousands of Protestants who have arrived in Paris to celebrate the wedding of Henri and Margot. Ironically this wedding was supposed to have been an act of reconciliation between the two religious factions and instead proves the catalyst for France’s biggest ever massacre.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Margot persuades Henri to undertake a hypocritical move and renounce his faith and convert to Catholicism in order to survive. Nevertheless both are kept under close supervision at the royal place, the Louvre. Plans are made to enable Henri to escape during a wild boar hunt, but just at the moment Henri is about to make good his escape, the king falls from his horse and is in danger of being gored by a wild boar. Neither of the king’s brothers comes to his aid. In fact, Anjou actively stops help from arriving. It is only the quick thinking of Henri that saves the king from certain death. However, in so doing Henri has scuppered his own escape plans much to the confusion and annoyance of his protestant supporters who are awaiting his escape. Unbeknownst to Henri, the king had already signed Henri’s arrest warrant that very morning in the sure knowledge that it would also be his death warrant. But having saved his life, the king changes his mind and calls Henri to his private apartments to save him from the certain death that is awaiting Henri in his own rooms.
Catherine, determined to have Henri dead, uses her youngest son to trap Henri into poisoning himself. However the plan backfires and in fact it’s her own son, King Charles who consumes the poison and is destined to die a slow tortuous death in burning agony and sweating blood. However before his death, he ensures that Henri can escape to Navarre knowing full well that his death will mean that Henri has little hope of surviving him for long but he refuses to let Margot escape with him. Henri returns to Navarre where he renounces his Catholic faith and returns to Protestantism. Margot’s protestant lover, de la Môle returns to Paris for Margot but is captured and is made the scapegoat for the poisoning of the king. Margot pleads for his life while at the king’s deathbed but he refuses. While her brother the Duke of Anjou is announced king, Margot, drenched in her brother’s blood, visits the executioner’s and views the beheaded body of de la Môle. Carrying the now embalmed head of her former lover, she leaves for Navarre.
I was a bit hesitant about watching the film again even though I liked the movie because of the violence. After all, I’m someone who screams at Indiana Jones movies. I once terrified a whole cinema by screaming during a screening of Dead Again. (All that had happened was that a hand – admittedly that of a murderer- appeared suddenly on screen). I screamed so hard that the whole cinema screamed with me and one guy came up to me afterwards and assured me: I don’t know about the film but you sure scared the shit out of me! However, my laptop screen being slightly smaller in scale than the screen I originally saw the film on when it was screened at its London premiere during the London Film Festival in the 90s, even I managed to watch it without fast forwarding – an advantage this time of watching a film on a small screen.
Also watching La Reine Margot again you are made aware of certain clunky bits in the narrative which you have to take with a pinch of salt. After all it’s a period film based on an Alexandre Dumas novel not a documentary. And no doubt if you were a French history scholar, you’d be banging your head against the wall at the various historical inaccuracies. At the premiere the director, Patrice Chéreau, mentioned that someone had complained that nobody wore hats in the film. They don’t – apart from the clergymen. However historical inaccuracy aside, this does help in telling the two sides apart. The protestants tend to have short hair and wear black. The Catholics tend to wear their hair long, particularly if they like murdering people. However, for those of you, who like me, know very little about French 16th century history, the film does give you at least some insight into what was happening in France while our own Elizabeth Regina was on the throne.
The film also makes you wonder why power is so attractive when everyone with it is patently so miserable when they have it and so terrified that they’ll lose it; and the depths people will plummet either to hold on to it or to gain it – from massacring thousands of innocents to murdering your own child and ruthlessly pinning the blame onto someone else. Power has corrupted and distorted the whole royal family and to no avail. None of Catherine’s children have an heir and all the intrigue and murder lead to nothing. The Valois line dies out and Henri of Navarre in the end becomes King of France.
Though no one knows the exact number of those killed, it was in its 1,000s. In the film Catherine mentions the figure, 6,000. Nowadays of course in most of Europe the idea of people killing each other because of their particular Christian denomination seems absurd. But in the 16th century whatever religion was in favour with the authorities could determine your standing in society, what rights you had and even whether you lived or died. The film shows how religion has been used from time immemorial as a construct to gain and wield power while ignoring the basic tenants of the very religion it purports to be supporting; and how human beings will always find a reason to hate on their fellow man, whether it be religion – even the same one, colour or nationality. That great oracle – Star Trek – has an episode entitled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” where both of the alien sides who are fighting each other are black down one side of their face and white down the other side. When Spock mentions that they are of the same breed, the alien refutes this; after all he is black on the right side and white on the left side while those he fights are white on the right side and black on the left. It epitomises the way man will clasp at anything to justify the unjustifiable.
So if you’d like to see a snapshot of French history, Vincent Perez and Isabelle Adjani in their prime (they are both drop dead gorgeous in this movie), period drama and intrigue, obligatory sword-fighting and a family that could give the Ewings of Southfork a run for their money then I highly recommend this movie.
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