Set at roughly the same time as Elizabeth, and like it wallowing in every sordid detail of the period, Patrice Chereau’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel Queen Margot dramatizes events around the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. I have not read the book. I suspect Dumas would not have laid on the sex and violence with such indiscriminate brutality, but then I also suspect Chereau’s primary motivation was to use the novel as a jumping off point to expose the dirt under the period glitter.
The results are occasionally vivid, but nearly incomprehensible. No one without at least passing knowledge of French history is likely to be able to keep track of the convoluted, tediously repetitive goings-on as Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi) plots and plots again to achieve a never terribly clear goal. Instead, we spend a great deal of time trapped in the Louvre with Margot (Isabelle Adjani) and her husband by a forced marriage, Henri de Navarre (Daniel Autueil) while Catherine, the Duc de Guise (Miguel Bosé), her sons, King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and the Duc d’Anjou (Pascal Greggory) figure out how to dispatch the Huguenots. Margot doesn’t like Henri, but she helps him negotiate the perilous shoals of palace politics, while pining for her Protestant lover, La Môle (Vincent Perez), whom she picked up in the streets. There’s more; way too much more, in fact.
This over-heated cauldron fails at the first requirement of melodrama, to make clear who is “good” and “bad.” Catherine, for example, while murderous to the point of madness presumes to have higher motives. The Duc de Guise, after being set up as the master villain, inexplicably falls out of the story, while Henri, presumably the “good guy,” (in historical, if not dramatic terms) is made vacillating and confused. Margot is nominally central, but inchoate and not very sympathetic. It is difficult to remember which faces go with which names, much less care about any of them, so Chereau resorts to more shock to keep us awake.
Margot alternates between thrashing out complicated conspiracies which come to naught and sudden bursts of inexplicable action. Chereau repeatedly and annoyingly jumps into the middle of a scene as breathless riders on horseback burst in, or as characters arrive huffing and puffing before committing an atrocity. An overly complex story with gaping holes becomes even more bewildering as we struggle to keep track of what is going on. The effort makes the 159 minute running time painfully apparent.
At least there is plenty to look at while you’re befuddled. Margot is handsomely mounted, and individual sequences, particularly the Massacre, can be riveting. I was nonetheless struck by how little I remembered of the film from the first time I saw it. All the action, intricate maneuvering, sex and rich decor barely register in the impenetrable flux. It ends up being too much and too little at the same time.