Umbrella Entertainment/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 137 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
If the world today seems like a rather dangerous place to be, spare a thought for those in past centuries who had to contend with persecution and fanaticism on a grand scale. History’s littered with power-crazed nutters and violent religious thuggery; so it was in France at the end of the 16th century, when Catholics and Protestants tried to live side by side under a regime where “freedom of religion” meant that you were free to subscribe to any faith you wanted, just so long as it was Catholic. It’s that kind of world in which the story of Queen Margot takes place.
Margot (Isabelle Adjani) and Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil)
As the film opens in 1572, an arranged wedding is taking place between Margot (Isabelle Adjani) and Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), officially an attempt to reconcile the two factions and bring the people together as one. Margot is not exactly delighted about this forced union, and makes sure Henri knows about it. Meanwhile, fanatically defending the Catholic way of doing things is Margot’s mother, Catherine di Medici (Virna Lisi), who advises her son King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) - a very ambivalent, child-like monarch - with calculating precision. Reconciliation between the opposing religions is, in fact, the last thing on her mind, and events quickly spiral out of control as thousands upon thousands of Protestants are murdered in what would become known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Henri is spared only by converting to Catholicism, but his erstwhile bride is less than interested; she’s fallen in love with one of the enemy, La Môle (Vincent Perez). As Catherine’s machinations pick up pace around her, Margot learns first-hand just how brutal the society of which she’s a key part can be.
Historical epics such as this aren’t exactly thin on the ground, but Queen Margot is in no way the staid, slow-moving drama that its subject matter might suggest it would be. Working from a classic book by Alexandre Dumas, screenwriter Danièle Thompson (who has since become a director, with second film Jet Lag currently in Australian cinemas) focuses intensely on the personal journey of Margot, the story seen from her perspective as terrible events unfold around her. It may open with pomp and ceremony, but the two and a quarter hours that follow are frenetic, loaded with lust, greed, arrogance, murder, sex, betrayal, fear and regret; it is, in fact, like a carefully-structured soap opera on a grand scale.
Margot notices she's the centre of attention again...
And we mean grand. Director Patrice Chéreau, along with brilliant cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and a stunning design department, has created a totally convincing picture of 16th-century France complete with lavish costumes, massively detailed sets and a real sense of time and place. The cast is absolutely remarkable - particularly Adjani, who captures Margot’s inner world perfectly (39 when this film was made in 1994, she looks easily 15 years younger). Auteuil and Anglade are as compelling as always, and while Perez doesn’t have as well-drawn a character to play with, he conveys the necessary desire and determination perfectly. Virna Lisi, meanwhile, is the epitome of evil as Catherine (the role won her the 'Best Actress' award at Cannes).
There’s so much that’s compelling about Queen Margot that it’s easy to let a few minor faults pass. And indeed one such flaw - the tendency of the narrative to jump ahead unexpectedly on occasion - is explained by the fact that the version released on DVD here is the US cut of the film, with some 30 minutes of material removed at the behest of American distributor Miramax. No matter; as it stands, this version’s running time of just under two hours 20 minutes is the ideal length for a story of such scope but with such a breakneck pace.
For all sorts of reasons, Queen Margot is one of this reviewer’s favourite moments in modern French cinema. Hopefully with it now out on DVD nearly a decade after it was first released, another generation of movie fans will discover this spectacular, enthralling masterpiece.
The royal wedding.
Those who saw Queen Margot in cinemas back at the time of its release will possibly remember a scratchy, faded print of the film with blurry white subtitles distracting from the visuals. Once again, the DVD format proves its worth when it comes to foreign film, as long-suffering fans of what some consider “art-house” now get the chance to see their favourite movies in pristine condition - as long as everything’s done right, of course. And everything’s certainly been done right here.
Brought to disc in a superb new 16:9 anamorphic transfer, this film has simply never looked better. With detail to spare and perfect colour saturation, this transfer is a revelation, finally giving Rousselot’s stunning imagery a chance to properly impress. This is a huge step up from the little-seen US DVD of the film, which saddled viewers with a grainy image riddled with artefacts. Here there is no such problem; there’s some occasional grain, sure, and occasionally the image seems a little soft, but this is inherent in the original source material. And the DVD authoring team at Madman have given the film and entire dual-layered disc to breathe on, encoding at a consistently high bitrate and removing any chance of encoding problems; this is up there with their best work in the encoding department.
Our only real gripe is the layer change, which is clumsily placed right before a scene change while music is playing; it will come as quite a jolt for the many viewers whose DVD players pause on layer changes.
English subtitles for the film are encoded as a sub-picture stream and are therefore removable for those who understand French; the crisp yellow font used for these is exactly what’s needed, and very reminiscent of the way SBS handle on-air subtitles.
The audio for Queen Margot was mixed for matrixed surround, and that’s what you get here - a Dolby Surround soundtrack encoded as a Dolby Digital 2.0 stream (but annoyingly without the surround flag set - you’ll have to hit that “Pro Logic” button yourself, but rest assured that’s how this soundtrack is intended to be heard!)
Sound quality is near-perfect, with dialogue sharp and clear and both music and effects extremely spacious and well judged. The music score - part classical, part modern - is key to the success of the film, and it sounds superb here.
One slight authoring slip along with the lack of a surround flag: the language for this track is set as “English”, which obviously it’s not.
Tragedy as events come to a head...
With the movie dominating the disc, there’s precious little room for extras (and it’s highly likely that none were available anyway). So while we’d all have loved a subtitled commentary from Patrice Chéreau or Isabelle Adjani, that sadly just isn’t on the cards. What we get here is a theatrical trailer that will give you some idea of just how bad the film looked in some cinemas, and a token pair of filmographies. Aside from a bunch of trailers for other Umbrella Entertainment DVDs, that’s all there is.
An absolutely remarkable film that looks just as jaw-droppingly incredible today as it did when first released, Queen Margot is a historical drama with the lot, presented on DVD with a superb new transfer. If you haven’t seen it before, here’s your chance - and trust us, you won’t be bored for a moment.