The considerable charm of the new historical epic Queen Margot is that, when all is said and done, it's really about how a nice, sexy, slightly wild Catholic girl manages to break free of her dysfunctional family.

The historical Margot of the title was a political bargaining chip in 16th-century France. Her arranged marriage to the Protestant king of Navarre preceded by six days the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of thousands of Huguenots in Paris in 1572, and even helped facilitate it--most of the victims had come to town for the wedding. The romantic story line depicts how Margot goes from pawn to covert player, how she uses her wit and passion to stay alive and snatch a little happiness.

Her real name was Marguerite de Valois, and she was the daughter of Catherine de Medici. She is said to have gained her nickname from her brother King Charles IX, who affectionately called her ma soeur Margot. Charles was only nominally the ruler, and his mother had gotten used to calling the shots.

When Charles fell under the influence of Coligny, the Protestant admiral, Catherine tried to have Coligny assassinated. The attempt was bungled, just days after the wedding between the 19-year-old Margot and King Henri of Navarre. The match was an apparently sincere effort to unify the two sides in the decadelong Wars of Religion.

The response of Catherine's faction to the Protestant outrage over the assassination attempt was reactionary overkill. Her weak son was persuaded to permit the mass slaughter of Protestants in the streets by pro-Catholic extremists, led by Catherine's ally--and Margot's sometime lover--the Duke of Guise. Thousands died, first in Paris and later in the provinces, and the wars were renewed for almost 20 more years.

At the center of these convoluted intrigues were the young bride and groom, two powerless young people who didn't know each other--she a beautiful, cosmopolitan, sexually experienced Catholic princess and he a rural Protestant king so unsophisticated that Catherine contemptuously called him "the peasant." Though they had little sexual interest in each other, they became allies and friends, and made the marriage work for them--they would outlive all the schemers. Margot lived to (for the time) old age in grand style and wrote a juicy memoir, while Navarre eventually reigned 20 years as Henri IV, France's first Protestant king and one of its most beloved rulers.

Other writers have treated the material, among them Christopher Marlowe, in his little-known, savagely anti-Catholic play The Massacre at Paris. But director Patrice Chreau and Chreau's co-adapter, Daniäle Thompson, used Alexandre Dumas' bristling 1843 novel La Reine Margot as their main source. It shows the Dumas touch. The narrative is flamboyant, loaded with gory violence, hysteria, swordfights, poisonings, incestuous longings, hairbreadth escapes and a dramatic boar hunt. Chreau and Thompson also soup up the sex considerably--their Margot has no need of Billy Joel's advice to Catholic gals in "Only the Good Die Young." I, like Henri of Navarre, am a Protestant guy who married a Catholic woman, but I did it voluntarily--some of us caught on to how delightfully Catholic sexual guilt can backfire. (In Crackpot, John Waters claims that in his prayers every night, he thanks God ". . . that I was raised Catholic, since sex will be better because it will always be dirty.")

But Queen Margot isn't just random sensationalism, although random sensationalism alone would have been preferable to historical stodginess. Aided hugely by Philippe Rousselot's luminous cinematography, Chreau generates a potent, gripping sense of period. The film is unapologetically a melodrama, with Margot a liberation-seeking heroine in the modern sensibility. Queen Margot isn't just a dopey costume picture--the action never quite falls into camp, the actors never look sheepish.

Actually, it's hard to imagine the leading lady, Isabelle Adjani, looking sheepish about anything. She's one of the most consistently, and annoyingly, self-impressed and self-indulgent of all current movie stars--she does for female sexuality what Charlton Heston did for Old Testament authority. Yet this, perhaps, is what makes Margot the role of a lifetime for her--a less self-adoring actress would have had a far harder time keeping a straight face. I've never liked Adjani anywhere near as well as I liked her in Queen Margot. The actress is so full of herself that somehow you end up taking the character seriously--she never winks at you to let you off the hook. Even that affectedly "sensual" wriggling she does, which made Camille Claudel so unbearable, works perfectly here. And while Adjani doesn't look anywhere near 19, she looks breathtaking in a way that even the loveliest 19-year-old can't. As Navarre, Daniel Auteuil doesn't look 19, either (that was also his age), but, like Adjani, he has the perfect face and presence for his role as a likable, gutsy bumpkin-king who's shrewd enough to know when he's in a jam. Jean-Hugues Anglade goes entertainingly over the top as the jittery, shrieking Charles, and while Vincent Perez, as Margot's smoldering Huguenot lover La Mle, is a little bland, Claudio Amendola is hearty and touching as Coconnas, La Mle's Catholic enemy turned defender. The most memorable of the supporting players, however, is probably Virna Lisi as Catherine, skulking around like Bengt Ekerot's Death in The Seventh Seal, sans the sly warmth. Queen Margot felt about 20 minutes too long to me, but since most French films, and also most historical epics, feel about ten minutes too long to me, this works out mathematically. If you're like me, it may also take you a little while to figure out who's Catholic and who's Protestant and who's sleeping with and/or plotting to kill whom, and why. Even the people involved in the actual events must have had some trouble with this. But eventually, I got the hang of it, and even before I did, I was highly diverted.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead