In those nifty homes-of-thefuture that planners dreamed of in the 1950s, the ones that featured robotic housecleaners and space-age architecture, post-World War II life on planet Earth seemed to be on the verge of true civilization. By the year 2000, we were supposed to have conquered all that made life so harsh for our ancestors.
But as the 20th century draws to a close, a quick look around shows such hopes to be naive in the extreme. As genocidal war grinds on in Bosnia, as buildings go boom in the American heartland, as frustrated men and women use their children as targets for their own deficiencies, life seems no better than it ever was.
“Seems,” though, is the operative word here. For Patrice Chereau’s historical drama “Queen Margot” is a clear demonstration of just how far humankind has come in the past 400 years.
Written by Chereau and Daniele Thompson, “Queen Margot” tells the story of the French monarchy during and immediately after the reigns of Charles IX, Henry III and Henry IV - roughly between the years 1572 to 1589.
It concentrates on Charles IX’s sister, Marguerite of Valois (Isabelle Adjani), who is given in marriage to Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). The marriage, which is arranged by Charles’ mother, Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), is calculated to bring peace between the Huguenot (or Protestant) followers of Henry and the Catholic hierarchy, which supports and is supported by the crown.
At this point, some of you are saying: What is this? I hated history in school, so why should I watch it at the movies?
For a couple of reasons. One, Chereau and Thompson do a Cliff’s Notes version of French history that isn’t too hard to follow. Two, while history is the backdrop, the film concentrates on the principal characters - Margot and her commoner lover La Mole, Charles, Henry and that nefarious de Medici woman - and their web of intrigues.
In a time of extreme religious intolerance, each of the the royals lives in a state of continual anxiety. Like Christian Serbs and Muslim Croats, or the two sides of the abortion issue, the Catholic and Huguenots of 16th-century France vie for dominance until - on the night of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 - raging Catholics massacre thousands of their Protestant enemy in the streets and suburbs of Paris.
The royals, caught up in this madness, deal with the horror each in his or her own way. Charles, a puppet to the stronger forces that surround him, lives only to hunt. Henry, a Huguenout by philosophy but ever the pragmatist at heart, does what he has to merely to survive. Catherine schemes to protect her children in whatever menacing way she can.
As for Margot, in the nights leading up to the horror, she, like a demented Princess Di, takes to the streets to make love like a rabbit with any man who catches her eye. One such man, the Huguenot la Mole (Vincent Perez), manages to capture her heart.
From there on, it’s a harsh ride through history, with the corpses piling up as fast as Britannica footnotes. The strength of “Queen Margot” is the unique inside view it gives of late 16th-century court manners, an atmosphere that is as crowded and potentially riotous as, say, the British court of “A Man For All Seasons” was murderously calm.
What the film doesn’t do is give a good reason for why we should care for Margot, who seems to rate barely a mention in most textbooks. And for sure, while actors such as Anglade and Auteuil and especially Lisi (who won the Best Actress award in 1994 in Cannes) eat up their screen time, Adjani and Perez essentially coast by on their good looks.
In the end, “Queen Margot” is a sweeping attempt to capture a particularly brutal time. If nothing else, then, it clearly demonstrates how far we’ve come as a species.
Headlines remind us daily of how far we have yet to go.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Queen Margot”** 1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Co-written (with Daniele Thompson) and directed by Patrice Chereau, starring Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Vincent Perez and Virna Lisi Running time: 2:33 Rating: R (in French with English subtitles)
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