We lost a major talent with the 2013 passing of director Patrice Chéreau, whose movies are marked by fierce intellect and fleshy eroticism. His stunning 1994 period piece, Queen Margot, adapted from Alexandre Dumas’s based-on-fact novel and now finally being released in its longer director’s cut, is a perfect introduction to Chéreau’s unique worldview.
It’s 1572 in France, and Marguerite de Valois (Isabelle Adjani) has just been married off to King Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), ostensibly as a peace offering between the warring Catholics and Huguenots. In truth, the union is a ruse by the Queen Mother (Virna Lisi, frightening) to incite a wave of assassinations that will come to be known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
Regal pageantry gives way to copious carnage: Swords open necks, wounds spurt crimson rivers, and clothes are caked in muck (you can practically smell the stench). It’s a horrifying and strangely carnal spectacle—imagine a Gallic-history encyclopedia written by Clive Barker—that’s merely a prelude to the slaughter’s fallout. Marguerite begins a passionate affair with Vincent Perez’s Protestant nobleman, La Môle (a tragic outcome is clearly inevitable), and the French royals find themselves on the receiving end of bizarre murder plots, like one involving a poisoned book that makes the victim sweat their body weight in blood.
Chéreau makes us hyperaware of the literal meat of human existence—the deep-rooted longing for companionship and the visceral lust for survival that can be cut short with the flick of an aristocrat’s hand. (These people aren’t the embalmed waxworks of your garden-variety historical epic.) Death seems to linger in every inch of the frame, yet the film lives and breathes like few others.
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