Isabelle Adjani hangs with Dominique Blanc in 1994's "Queen Margot." Credit: Cohen Media Group
'Queen Margot' Director: Patrice Chereau Stars: Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil Rating: R 4 (out of 5) Globes
Twenty years ago, Patrice Chereau’s “Queen Margot” scared up a pretty penny as a French costume drama with Isabelle Adjani at her most inhumanly clean-faced. But it was never just another period piece. In fact, viewed today — in its original, even longer cut before having some of its 162 minutes hacked off — it looks like no frock fest ever made. Indeed, those dresses tend to get mucked up, with grime and the geysers of blood that emit by the gallons from slit throats. It’s a film not about pomp or even grit but about the line that separates both, as well as life and death, sex and passionate murder. For most of the characters, banging isn’t as much of a rush as killing.
Good thing, then, that it tackles an actual massacre. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ historical novel, its main draw is the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, when the Catholic royalty of France laid waste to many of the Huguenots in Paris. At the center is Adjani’s Margot, the king’s sister who has just been wed as a false peace offering to the Protestant Henri, king of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). But she really has the hots for La Mole (Vincent Perez), a Protestant soldier who initially wants nothing to do with her but soon finds respect melding nicely with desire.
Present are the faux-casual sex and nudity that have been staples of Euro cinema since the 1950s. But “Queen Margot” goes even further. When they’re not actually banging, the characters ooze a ravenous hunger for flesh, be the temptation sated carnally or with violence. Many die gruesomely, and even if they’re not felled by blades they’re done in by poison that throws them into erotic convulsions or makes them sweat blood. (Among its many other accomplishments, “Queen Margot” deserves a special prize for most inventive use of poisons — one receives “death by book.”)
Even more than Chereau’s other films — including 2001’s “Intimacy,” which features some actual sex acts — “Queen Margot” is a jaw-droppingly earthy film, trigger sensitive to the mortality of bodies. (Chereau died last year at 68.) The beauty of Adjani and Perez runs up against the dirt and grime that plague even royal homes. It’s more modern than retro: Pascal Greggory, as a particularly heartless Catholic, has the longhaired swagger of a ’70s rock star. (Meanwhile, Auteuil’s giant curly ’do and fuzzy chin hair make him look like the frontman of no shortage of ’90s alternative bands.)
Adjani’s classical looks feel out of place among the bloody whittling down of the principals. Another beauty, Virna Lisi — as Margot’s scheming mother, haunting the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s copious shadows in goth black — gets to deliver the most nuanced performance in a cast of actors tasked with acting big and hungry. That’s a compliment: When characters think they’re about to die, they go into full-bodied biological revolt. Then as now, there’s nothing quite like it.