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.
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.
OTHER CHOICES FROM THE BEST SHOT CLUB
The entire film is like a living painting of the Catholic Counter Reform...
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.
It's staggering stuff, at once starkly beautiful and bracingly brutal.
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.
NEXT TUESDAY ON BEST SHOT: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)