Queen Margot (1994): Gory French Historical Drama, Starring Isabelle Adjani and Virna Lisi

The French film industry would prefer not to take any lessons from Hollywood. Not at a time when French audiences are flocking to see American movies, usually the big-budget, special-effect action-adventures (Jurassic Park, Speed), while neglecting to support their own national products, much to the resentment of French officials, like Culture Minister Jacques Toubon.

The whole issue of “Hollywood sur la Seine” is a touchy one, as French films are not doing as well in the American film markets as they used to. Increasingly, what Hollywood producers have been doing is to buy the rights for successful French films, like Coline Serreau’s Three Men and a Cradle, and remake them into anglicized versions like 3 Men and a Baby, starring Tom Selleck and Tad Danson.

Most American audiences don’t like subtitled movies. It’s too much work they claim. There are also national traditions that movies often find hard to overcome–different tastes, different stories, different stars and acting styles.

Recently, however, one very French movie, Queen Margot, proved that with some flexibility foreign movies could cross more smoothly national and geographic boundaries. It wasn’t easy, initially, for there was resentment when it was disclosed that the Americans would wield their scissors on the movie that recently earned an Oscar nomination for best costumes.

When Queen Margot came out, in spring 1994, the $26 million extravaganza of lust, blood and passion was so turgid that it made Germinal, the gruesome coalmine drama of last year, look like a tame melodrama.

The story concerns Catholic Marguerite de Vallis (Isabelle Adjani), who’s forced to marry the Protestant Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) in an attempt to make peace in France. But an explosive chain of events is triggered by the wedding, resulting in clandestine trysts, new romantic alliances, political conspiracies, and bloody murders.

Touted as the French movie event of the year, it conformed to the profile of being a very long, very expensive, over-wrought epic of the costume variety, usually starring Gerard Depardieu (Cyrano de Bergerac) or Isabelle Adjani (Queen Margot), or preferably both (Camille Claudel).

The film was chosen as opening night of the prestigious l994 Cannes International Film Festival. Rumor has it that patriotic duty, rather than genuine interest, drove the French public to see it. Originally, it lasted three long hours and received mixed reviews by American and other foreign critics.

Nonetheless, since Queen Margot lost money at the box-office and the heavily subsidized French industry has been desperate to export its movies, producer Claude Berri (Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring) accepted the demand by Miramax, the film’s American distributor, for total re-editing. Miramax came prepared: Sneak previews showed that American audiences found the film too long–and boring.

How dare Americans tell the French how to handle their movies was the reaction of Francophile filmmakers, a breed who believe that a film is a sacred work of art, not to be touched even by its producer, let alone crass distributor.

But the result of the l90 cuts and new soundtrack has been so impressive that Berri and director Patrice Chereau have “swallowed” their pride, and are now singing the praise of American “savoir faire” (know-how). In a moment of weakness, Chereau was heard saying: “There is no shame in listening to the Americans. It is true they push hard….But their cinema works and we have things to learn from them.”

Even the notoriously difficult Adjani, who won American hearts back in l975 in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., for which she won an Oscar nomination, was full of praise, saying Queen Margot is now “much more romantic.” In fact, the slimmed-down film is about to be reshown to the French public–it’s believed that its excessive running time also damaged its domestic performance.

In one respect, however, Queen Margot suggests that the French are ahead of Hollywood: The screen roles they offer to women. Just watch how the Queen fights back with all her weapons of intelligence and sexuality to maintain her balance in the vicious intrigues and religious politics that beset sixteenth century France.

The film’s other major presence is Margot’s mother, the formidable Catherine de Medici, played by Italian actress Virna Lisi. Lisi’s evil head floats as she hatches one nefarious plot after another. Her handiwork culminates in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre–the movie’s effective but gruesome climax–in which France’s Protestants are brutally butchered.

Queen Margot is not always brisk, but its authentic locale and production, particularly the stunning cinematography of Oscar-winner Phillipe Rousselot, make it a unique historical drama, the kind of which is seldom made in the U.S. anymore