Queen Margot (La Reine Margot, 1994)
During the French Wars of Religion, Catholic Princess Marguerite of Valois’ marriage to Henri of Navarre, a Huguenot, precipitates the brutally violent Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre in 1572.
Directed by Patrice Chéreau and produced by Renn Productions, France 2 Cinema, D.A. Films, and Miramax, La Reine Margot (Queen Margot, 1994) tells the story of the French royal court during the turbulent years between 1572 and 1574 through the perspective of the young Marguerite of Valois (Isabelle Adjani). Marguerite, the daughter of the former King, brother of the reigning King (Jean-Hueges Anglade), and wife to the King of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) must navigate the increasingly violent religious conflicts between her Catholic family and her Protestant husband. Her world then becomes even more complicated when she falls in love with La Môle (Vincent Pérez), a Protestant soldier. The film is based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel of the same name. The historical Marguerite of Valois has been dominated by a specific version of her story, which was popularized in Dumas’ novel. This version of Marguerite is called Margot to represent how different these two figures were. Dumas’ novel is, in fact, “largely fictional, but also based on historical sources” (Hoogyliet, 69). Nevertheless, the novel was influential in framing the history of “Margot,” because Dumas cleverly intertwined truthful aspects with melodramatic fiction. He also used propaganda from Marguerite’s own lifetime to formulate his vision of the young queen. This propaganda made it even more difficult to sort out the truthful aspects of her life from the scandalous rumors (Sluhovsky, 194). Director Patrice Chéreau did not attempt to reconstruct the historical Marguerite, but instead wished to dramatize a new version of the Dumas-inspired Margot legend from a feminist perspective (Sluhovsky, 201). While he created a version of Margot who was sexually liberated despite strict restrictions imposed by her royal life, Margot’s insatiable sexuality seems to cloud other aspects of her character, particularly the film’s use of her lover La Môle, who is the source of her “salvation.”
While Chéreau aimed to create a Margot “for the nineties,” his overreliance on sensuality in the film and his somewhat heavy-handed portrayal of Margot’s insatiable sexual desire clouds Margot’s other characteristics. Margot’s sexuality is the driving force of the film (Sluhovsky, 201). An innkeeper tells La Môle she is a whore in the first reference to her in the film. She is rumored to have had incestuous affairs with her brothers. Her only goal seems to be any and all sexual pleasure, and later, sex with her lover La Môle. It is impossible to ignore the intense sensual perspective of the film, and Roger Ebert noted that the film is “all made up of close-ups (heads, shoulders, heaving bosoms) and scurryings hither and thither, and night shots of orgies of sex and violence” (Ebert). Chéreau’s sensual viewpoint of both Margot’s body and her motivations is evident in almost every scene. A notable moment, though, comes when Margot and her companion stroll down the streets of Paris searching for a man Margot has declared she desperately needs. The women wear black masks and fine dresses amongst the many men that line the streets. This striking image emphasizes the class divide Margot is willing to cross despite other’s expectations of her behavior as a French queen, further reinforcing her power to make her own decisions. Margot eventually chooses La Môle and has sex with him in an alley. Chéreau’s goal with this scene was most likely to show that Margot had the power to choose her own lover despite a forced marriage. Even in the face of her inability to choose her own husband, she still exercises a great amount of personal agency by refusing to allow this to dampen her sexual freedom. Chéreau intended for this to symbolize Margot’s status as a feminist woman, but Margriet Hoogyliet believes that this scene also comes across as portraying a woman who seems to lack personality traits beyond her sexual desire because of the extreme emphasis on sex throughout the film (Hoogyliet, 70).
Margot’s encounter with La Môle is a key moment in the film because it shifts her focus from her own sexual desires to a greater concern for the morality of her family. Through this reversal, Margot becomes more concerned with the political events surrounding her. Before Margot falls in love with La Môle she seems solely focused on sex. While she is still focused on sex with La Môle after they meet, she additionally seems to become an altogether different person, concerned with her own personal morality and the morality of her family, emphasized by her horror when confronted with her family’s murderous actions (Sluhovsky, 202). This key change occurs during the night of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. La Môle, seeking shelter, bursts through the doors of Margot’s chamber and forcibly into her arms. Margot then uses her cunning and position of power to force the Catholic assassins to leave, thus saving La Môle’s life. The two fall in love. She declares that her new love has revealed the evil of her mother’s deeds to her and she becomes sympathetic to the Protestant cause. Chéreau’s decision to have La Môle be the cause for her newfound morality plays into what Moshe Sluhovksy describes as “an ancient male fantasy where the ability of the right man’s sexual prowess to reform and remake his woman” (Sluhovsky, 202). According to Sluhovsky, this scene undermined Chéreau’s vision for a feminist Margot, but even if the new perspective La Môle provides motivates her decisions, they are Margot’s decisions nonetheless.
Marguerite de Valois is a fascinating woman who lived at the center of one of the greatest religious conflicts of her time, but sensationalized tales of her sexuality has muddied her historical reputation. Because she was hated by the Protestants for being a Catholic and hated by the Catholics for marrying a Protestant, defamation sprang from all directions (Rankin, 62). Marguerite’s death marked the end of the Valois family line, which had no remaining members to defend their reputation from attack (Sealy, 7). Dumas drew from this tradition to create a definitive version of “Margot,” the villainous and selfish nymphomaniac (Sluhovsky, 195). Director Patrice Chéreau wished to create a feminist version of Margot that acknowledged her sexuality as a celebration of her personal agency in a time of immense conflict. Some critics, however, believed he relied so heavily on celebrating Margot’s sexuality that other notable aspects of her life were sacrificed to this vision. The historical Marguerite of Valois is an extremely difficult figure to draw from the sources, but perhaps no such attempt should be made. Instead, Marguerite’s life best serves history by showing how the life of one woman can be so warped by the agendas of those that came after her.
Hoogyliet, Margriet. “Distance and Involvement: Visualising History in Patrice Chereau’s La Reine Margot (1994) and in Eric Rohmer’s Anglaise et la duc (2001).” Relief 6, no. 1. (2010): 66-79.
Rankin, Walter M., trans. Memoirs of Marguerite de Valois. New York: Merrill and Baker, 2008.
Sealy, Robert J. The Myth of the Reine Margot: Toward the Elimination of a Legend. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1994.
Sluhovsky, Moshe. “History as Voyeurism: From Marguerite de Valois to La Reine Margot.” Rethinking History 4, no. 2. (2000): 193-210.
France 2 Cinéma
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)