There are moments in Queen Margot that are horrifying as any I have ever seen on film. Heads are cracked open, guts are gouged, bodies are smashed and split and dumped into pits in scenes that bring to mind images of Holocaust slaughter. Blood spurts everywhere; there’s so much spilled that the palette of this production is not even crimson — it’s a thick, matted maroon.
<p. What would be outrageous in any other context is, however, mesmerizing in the hands of French director Patrice Chéreau: It's 16-century French history he's telling, and Chéreau excels at making the dirt and rot and lusts and hatreds of 400 years ago come to life so vividly you can practically smell the unwashed bodies in the court of Catherin de Médicis, where this brutal chapter takes place. The story, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, is that of Catherine's Catholic daughter, Marguerite of Valois (Isabelle Adjani), called Margot, who is married by her mother (Virna Lisi) to the French leader of the (Protestant) Huguenots, Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), in a disastrous attempt to ease the ongoing fighting between the two religious factions and to protect her family's throne.
In a plot dense with historical characters whose names and loyalties may not be immediately distinguishable, Chéreau does something fresh: He dives in with momentum going going going so that you can feel the fury that fuels this insane holy war, letting individual heroes and villains emerge out of the muck, then sink back into their larger hell again. Margot’s emotionally frayed older brother, Charles (Jean-Hugues Anglade), for instance, who barely registers as the king for half the movie, becomes an extraordinary character by the story’s climax. (In contrast, Steven Spielberg builds the power of Schindler’s List, a movie of similar large, tragic scope, on a slow, step-by-step march to horror, introducing each character patiently and precisely.)
But within his dark canvas, Chéreau also beams points of light: In an alley littered with bleeding men, he creates a bold, arousing scene of anonymous sex between a prowling Margot and La Môle (Vincent Perez), the Huguenot who becomes her lover. In the most fetid of settings, he caresses the faces and bodies of his actors with a sympathetic lens so that even a bit-part valet or lady-in-waiting projects real life. And Chéreau contrasts the cool, mysterious, velvety beauty of Adjani — last seen here, much too long ago, in 1988’s Camille Claudel — with the beaky, contained style of Auteuil (Jean de Florette), and again with the sensual energy of Perez. There are nightmare scenes here, and you can’t take your eyes off them. There’s a monster mother here, and you are thrilled by the skull-head stare of the magnificent Virna Lisi the way you thrilled at the schemes of Sian Phillips’ Livia in I, Claudius. History has rarely been so gorgeously, electrically, sensuously portrayed. You’ll want to go home and bathe. A