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Best Shot: Queen Margot (1994)

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Queen Margot (1994)
Director: Patrice Chereau. Cinematography: Phillipe Rousselot. 
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Perez, Jean-Hugues Anglade, and Virna Lisi 
Awards: 2 Cannes jury prizes, 5 César Awards, 1 Oscar nomination.

They say that death always takes your lovers..."

When I was young and extremely sexually naive, let's say hypothetically in High School French class, I was startled to discover that the French phrase "La petite mort," which translates literally to 'the little death' referred to a sexual orgasm. I had no idea why these two towers of Human Obsession, Sex and Death, would be linked up like twins. But the movies, ever the personal tutor for young cinephiles, kept forcing the connections.

Which brings us to the decadent, opulent, erotic, violent and visceral 16th century French epic Queen Margot, this week's Best Shot subject. (The shot choices are after the jump due to the graphic nature of the film...)

Patrice Chéreau's film, based on the Alexandre Dumas novel, documents the tumultous and extremely bloody history of shifting power and betrayals among French royals (including at their most frightening: Virna Lisa, who took Best Actress at Cannes for her matriarch with ice in her veins, and the great Jean-Hugues Anglade as the perpetually sweaty, paranoid, and impetuous doomed King). The politics and plot and cast are too complex and crowded with incident and agenda to recount. Chereau wisely opts to focus on the powder keg passions at work (sexual, political, violent, religious and otherwise) and the film burns through its running time with remarkable momentum, every scene (especially in the first hour) entirely combustible. 

Queen Margot isn't interested in either Sex or Death unless the other is voyeuristically looking on from the wings or thisclose to the center of the frame copulating with the other. The first time I saw it my eyes went as wide and wild as Isabelle Adjani's at her most possessed. That's very wide indeed if you're unfamiliar with Her Porcelain Madness.

Bronze. After the movie's most erotic scene, Margot's lover foretell's his death.Silver. A grotesque mirror of a previous scene when Margot and Henriette wear masks to seduce men in the streets. Now they're all dead.

Gold. Nathaniel's choice for Best Shot

In the movie's relentlessly engorged first hour nearly every scene throbs with the possibility of either mob violence or mass orgies breaking out - both occur in point of fact. In the silver medal choice above, the movie plays with this duality, mirroring an erotic sequence in which Margot and her wicked friend Henrietta wear masks to seduce men in the streets, with a grotesque march through dead bodies, with less glamorous masks this time. One of the memorable ways Chereau & Rousselot convey this tangled mess of humanity is with intensely crowded frames. Even when an actor is in closeup multiple people are sharing the frame, their bodies or faces pressed tightly against each other. Adjani's Queen is like an angel of death throughout, her ghostly face made even paler since its framed by that wild black hair. On Margot's wedding night she tells one of her lovers (not her husband)...

I want to see the image of my death in my pleasure

And while those two never share a sex scene, this quote haunts the movie's most famous sex scene visually (bronze image above) with Margot's skin ghostly white under La Môle's (Vincent Perez) more terrestrial body. But in the electrifying shot I've chosen as the film's most potent image above, Margot and Henrietta rescue La Môle from a massacre. The shot's rich dark colors, overheated bodies, and blood soaked costumes take on the luminosity of a classic Caravaggio-esque painting. The scene is terrifying in its intensity but it's still subversively racked with eroticism as the women tear his clothes off to treat his wounds and attempt to save him from death. Margot realizes she's already slept with him, mere hours before in her masked prowl. Sex and death are harrowingly fused again. 


The entire film is like a living painting of the Catholic Counter Reform... 
-Magnificent Obsession 

All of this could not look more like a painting if Rousselot had etched brush strokes onto his lens
-Antagony & Ecstasy

They're entwined with each other, they lean on each other, but they stand independently, almost in two different worlds. 
-Dancin Dan on Film 

Apart from the objective beauties of both actors, their whirlwind romance felt perfectly set amidst the inter-religious turmoil engulfing France and its citizens. 
-Sorta That Guy

The film’s best visual compositions are stoic but expressive.
-Film Mixtape

It's staggering stuff, at once starkly beautiful and bracingly brutal. 
-Film Actually 

Have you ever seen Queen Margot? It's streaming on Netflix and it's unforgettable. It's one of my personal contenders for "Best Picture of 1994" alongside Heavenly Creatures and Pulp Fiction



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Reader Comments (23)

Adore this film, its director, its cinematographer and its stars (hello, Ulrich Wildgruber, Jean-Claude Brialy, Thomas Kretschmann, Asia Argento)—if I had more time (but especially more energy) right now, I'd be all over this one.

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

A bit late, but here's my entry:

I just now had time to write and publish it, so I didn't get to edit the text, so, I'm apologizing in advance for the length o the entry, any repetitions and English errors. I really love this film's visuals and couldn't lose this opportunity.

I'm not so taken with the film, but the visual experience is pretty staggering - it feels offensive to have watched it on a laptop.

May 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Chris -- right? I saw it on a big screen when it came out and went twice on opening weekend. I love this movie SO much. but sadly people don't talk about it much these days.

May 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

also i am HORRIFIED that oscar voters saw this but did not nominate it for Best Cinematography. at least Rousselot has an Oscar.

May 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I feel if I were to re-watch the film, I would like it a lot more. Even from first viewing there's A LOT to like esp. in regards to the leads, but as a first watch, it was a bit hard for me to get into. Couldn't get names/characters straight, etc.

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Outside of the Diabolique remake and the knowledge she has a child with Daniel Day-Lewis I have never seen another Isabelle Adjani movie.

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Queen Margot was one of my favorite books when I was a teenager and the image I had in my head about it was completely different than the movie I saw many years later. The cinematography is staggering, the performances great but somehow I couldn't connect it at all with the source material. In my mind it was all about the romance and what I saw on the screen was a pile of bodies, which , to be fair was in the book as well - I just hadn't payed attention. But in the end, I'd rather to back to my imaginary movie .

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

Everything about Queen Margot is gorgeous. It's not like any other historical costume drama I've ever seen - subversively funny (at least for the opening reel), incredibly sexy, and into equal objectification of both sexes. It's hard to believe it only managed an Oscar nod for Costume Design, especially since Adjani and Lisi are SO good.

I was thinking a lot about the sex/death connection too - the film does all but directly call out la petite mort, after all. But the film is equally fascinated with religion, though not as explicitly - a lot of the shots called to mind religious paintings of the era. Lots to think about. I loved reading these.

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I feel so lame. I only knew what 'la petite mort' was from Alexis Arquette's character in "Bride of Chucky". "Do you know what the French call an orgasm? LA PETITE MORTET. So what do you say, Tiffany? Do you want to die a little?" and then Chucky comes to life and suffocates her. (Pre-transition but I think I should still use female pronouns)

I'll show myself out.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

Star Wars? Isn't everyone just going to pick Oscar Isaac biting his lip?

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I think I've only seen this movie once, but that's only because I don't know if I could handle the overwhelming emotions this movie brings up. I love my memory of it unreservedly.

I'm trying to remember if I saw it in a movie theater or on home video (yes, VHS). I'm thinking it must have been on TV because I was living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the time.

What I remember is maybe the best use of blood and gore I've ever seen in a movie. Everything seems so heightened and so plausibly real. While all of this is going on, I remember the stillness of Virna Lisi, her cold-bloodedness juxtaposed against all the hot blooded goings on, in bed and at the end of the sword.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Outrageously brilliant, sensual, animalistic film. The early 90s were a lush time for those of us with a Vincent Perez fetish (also in 'Cyrano de Bergerac', if anyone wants another slab of French 16th/17th C magnificence & hasn't seen it). IIRC, I actually saw the UK premiere of this film at the Cambridge Film Festival ... those were the days ...


I'm going to cheat on the best shot. Coz I'm nominating the soundtrack, which no-one's mentioned yet. The low level, repetitive, metallic sword-drawing overlay is just hypnotic & impossibly dramatic / appropriate without ever feeling "period" or overdone. Superb as the acting & visuals are - and they are - for me, the truly spine-chilling impact arises from those sounds.

* heads off to dig out film for an evening's indulgence *

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEBGB

Nat would you have nominated Lisi in your awards.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Other things I should have said:

1) There's incredibly few films that I own on both VHS & DVD. This was the first, because I couldn't do without it.

2) 'Pulp Fiction' might reasonably be argued to be one of the best films of '94, but this was definitely the best cinematic experience, hands down. The lushness is comparable with Peter Greenaway, and there's little higher praise visually. The two nominations above for the marriage ceremony shot above say it all.

3) I have a fairly severe aversion to Juliette Binoche, which I think derives quite hard from my adoration of Isabelle Adjani. The former is a fine actress, no question, but I get irritated by the way (male) directors get all tremulous about her unquestionable luminescence, & don't seem to ask her to stretch her boundaries. I've never seen her be proper animal in anything. Adjani, on the other hand, can be as animal as it's possible to be, and is all the better for it. But I suspect that terrifies a lot of directors out of using her properly, which irritates me coz it feels like a dismissal of talent that wouldn't happen to a man of equal talent and physical openess.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEBGB

I love my Historical films, and this is one of the best. Although the real Catherine De Medici wasn't quite the monster that this film portrays her as. I always find it funny that most of the people that go to the Louvre every year have no idea that at one time the courtyard was piled up with bodies.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobMiles

Nathaniel - super surprised by that too, but I'd say Rousselot wasn't nominated for his best work (this and DANGEROUS LIAISONS... *whispers* and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE)

May 18, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

EBGB - You are SO RIGHT to mention the score, which I can't believe I didn't give a shout-out to! It's perfect without ever feeling too period OR too modern, and is so counter to what we would normally expect for this kind of film.

And also: " Adjani, on the other hand, can be as animal as it's possible to be." Can we PLEASE talk about Possession and how freaking amazing she is in it?!? Because I really liked that she wasn't the one going batshit insane in this film because every time something unbearably awful happened, I just pictured THAT scene going on in her head.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Isabelle Adjani is a marvel, and not just in this film. Every time I think of her abstractly, I always think of that porcelain skin and a kind of stillness, but then when you actually see her in a movie, she is ferociously acting up a storm and giving it her all. She is not nearly acclaimed enough in the US I don't think.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

This movie looks like everything I want in a period piece, but I couldn't justify the running time this weekend. :(

Such a shame that this couldn't have been switched with Star Wars, which I feel approximately zero need to rewatch.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAR

AR -- you can still watch QUEEN MARGOT and you should. It's on Netflix. I will surely talk about it again now that it's fresh in the memory again.

May 18, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Loved this movie...

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

June 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterhowtodoanything

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