Sex, gore and the lessons of history

March 24, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Talk about a dysfunctional family! Take those wacky Valois -- pleeeze!

It appears that the three boys have gotten a little "intimate" with Sis. And one of them appears to have gotten a little too friendly with Mom, too. Maybe that's why Mom's so cranky these days and she keeps poisoning people. Meanwhile, Sis is entering legend for the number of boyfriends, including those of a different faith. This upsets Mom and she tries to get rid of Sis' husband, but her oldest son takes the poison by mistake and dies sweating blood in church. Her second son -- her fave, if you know what I mean and I think you do -- takes over the family business, until a priest murders him.

If you think we're discussing some evolutionary backwater of trashy squalor already slated for Oprah or Jenny Jones, guess again. This all happened way back in the '70s -- the 1570s, that is. The family business is France and two of the three boys were kings thereof (Charles IX and Henry III); the lucky husband who survived the murder attempt (and several others) became Henry IV, founder of the Bourbon line; Sis was his wife, Queen Marguerite de Valois; Mom was Catherine de Medici, who was to poison what Babe Ruth was to homers.

The movie that chronicles these messy events is "Queen Margot," which opens today at the Charles in rotation with "A Man of No Importance" -- and I haven't even mentioned the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. That piece of nastiness took place when Mom became worried her dim oldest boy (Charles IX, played by Jean-Hughes Anglade) was falling under the spell of a Protestant. With her two smarter younger boys, she attempted first to assassinate the Protestant and then, when that failed, unleashed her murderers on the general population, consuming 4,000 Huguenots in the process. Messy, messy.

"Queen Margot" offers history just the way you like it: hot and spicy, chock full of violence, intrigue, sex and costumes. No boring guy in glasses explains what it all means. Director Jean Chereau's 16th century is a teeming, filthy, sexy place, and none of the men shave and all the women sweat.

It was pre-shampoo, and Chereau loves to emphasize the greasy mats of hair atop the heads of his elegantly besilked aristocrats. In the end, the huge French production veers between looking like various paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, and various movies by either Russ Meyer or Sam Peckinpah.

Derived from a lesser Alexandre Dumas novel (Chereau hadn't even heard of it!), the movie is full of greater Dumas signatures: vividly melodramatic plotting full of twists and astonishing betrayals, a lethally evil female plotter (Mama de Medici is the analogue to "Three Musketeers' " Milady) and a gallant young soldier, who comes to the big city to find a job.

But of course Chereau and his screenwriter, Daniele Thompson, can't resist adding modernist touches. The handsome soldier, who becomes Margot's lover and the film's only heroic presence, ends up on the shelf. That is, his head is on the shelf; his body reposes in a coffin on the floor.

More to the point, the piece has been reconfigured in ways Dumas could not have imagined. Margot, played by sultry, pouty, endlessly watchable Isabelle Adjani, never loves the Protestant her mother forces her to marry, but after the massacre, she feels empathy for him, becomes his ally and plots against her evil, moronic family. The movie, under the ample splashings of blood and exposing of breasts, is that old standard, the woman's story: how she grew from slatternly callowness to a queen's majesty and wisdom.

The production is handsome, if square (it hasn't the vividness or the panache that the coming "Rob Roy" boasts in spades), and it's not a bad idea to sit down with the Columbia Encyclopedia for 10 minutes before you leave for the theater -- otherwise it'll take a good hour before you can figure out who's Protestant and who's Catholic (they all look alike, you know).

The one shock is how menacing Virna Lisa, the Italian ex-sexpot, is as Catherine de Medici. When did she turn into the wicked queen from Snow White?

"Queen Margot"

Starring Isabelle Adjani and Virna Lisi

Directed by Patrice Chereau

Released by Miramax

Rated R (violence, sex, nudity)

***

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