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Monday, May 12, 2014

QUEEN MARGOT: Restored Director's Cut Review

Courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection
1994, 159 minutes
Rated R for nudity, strong sexuality, and for graphic scenes of massacre (cut version)

Review by Joshua Handler

The director's cut of Queen Margot is now showing at Film Forum in NYC for a one-week engagement.

We all have our ideas of what a traditional historical epic looks like.  They are big in every way: big hair, big costumes, big words.  They are very "arty", slow, snobby, and are usually very polite.  Add in a lot of sex, intrigue, a story that is consistently smart, twisting, and filled with inventive poisonings, throat-slittings, and massacres that moves at a pace that more closely resembles a thriller than a costume drama and you have a fairly good idea of what Patrice Chéreau's Queen Margot looks like.

The film is set in 1572 and Margot (Isabelle Adjani), a Catholic, is forced by the royal family to marry Henri (Daniel Auetuil), a Protestant, to supposedly make peace between Catholics and Protestants in France.  The peace lasts for all of two minutes before violence breaks out and comes to a head during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in which Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots.

Chéreau doesn't want his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' 1845 novel to be a typical costume drama.  He wants it to be a bold, bawdy, grimy piece of work with a strict adherence to realism.  France in 1572 was not a nice place.  Between the political turmoil and the religious tensions between the Catholics and the Huguenots, there isn't a lot to call "nice" or "elegant" other than the monarchy's clothing.  Paris was a dark, dirty city, and Chéreau makes sure that we realize that by making nearly everyone physically dirty.  All of the pretensions associated with period pieces are stripped back.  There is no politeness.  Everyone is out to kill each other and all of this killing and betrayal continues on for 159 minutes.

By the end of the film, I felt as if I'd seen a 159-minute film, but that was good because it was 159 minutes well-spent on a great movie.  Isabelle Adjani and Virna Lisi are the two stand-outs in the cast.  Adjani's Margot is strong, passionate, and sympathetic (one of the only sympathetic characters in the film).  Adjani's expressive face speaks volumes.  As Catherine, Margot's manipulative, scheming mother, Virna Lisi is despicably wonderful.  Lisi deservingly won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her layered, ice-cold performance.  While she may one of the cruelest mothers ever depicted on film, she is still portrayed as a human, not a monster, which is to Lisi and Chéreau's credit.  Showing the human side of villains is what makes them all the more frightening.

Queen Margot was initially recut by Miramax upon its first domestic theatrical release in 1994.  Before Patrice Chéreau's untimely death in 2013, he supervised a 4K restoration of Queen Margot and crafted his director's cut, which is what is now being screened courtesy of Cohen Film Collection.  With this new restoration, the film looks quite good and is an excellent showcase for Philippe Rousselot's stunning cinematography.

Overall, Queen Margot is essentially a historical Game of Thrones.  It always treats its audience with respect and is simply an excellent piece of filmmaking.  Chéreau and Denièle Thompson's screenplay is filled with a serpentine plot, many characters, and little "hand-holding".  If you are in an area in which the restored director's cut of Queen Margot is playing, seek it out.  I promise you, this is one for the ages that will disappoint few.


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