France, 1572. In a bid to prevent civil war, Catherine de Medici, the power behind the throne of her son, Charles IX , marries her Catholic daughter, Marguerite de Valois, to Henri, the Protestant King of Navarre. However, Margot is more interested in her lover, Le Mole, than the affairs of state.
Screenwriter Danièle Thompson first interested Patrice Chéreau in Alexandre Dumas's historical novel in 1992. Although he had made films before - L'Homme Blessé had scandalised Cannes with its graphic depiction of gay sex - Chéreau was best known for his work in the theatre and opera. Consequently, most people expected a heritage picture along the lines of producer Claude Berri's Pagnol adaptations or his 1993 take on Zola's Germinal, especially after La Reine Margot landed the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, where Virna Lisi was also acclaimed Best Actress for her feral performance as Catherine de Medici.
However, audiences and critics alike were shocked by Chéreau's uncompromising delineation of both the barbarity of the Wars of Religion and the bestiality of life at Charles IX's court. Instead of historical opulence, they were treated to filthy costumes, unkempt hair and boorish manners, as well as an anachronistic approach to period detail and dialogue, and a boomingly modern score. Moreover, the action was drenched in blood, as Chéreau sought to swamp any romanticised notions of a period awash with crimes like the St Bartholomew's Massacre that stained the reputation of Royalist France. (There were those, however, who claimed that such carnage was a response to the civil wars then erupting across Eastern Europe following the collapse of Communism). Some pointed out that Isabelle Adjani was too old to play the teenage queen. But the majority of complaints concerned the complexity of the plot, which particularly taxed non-French viewers even though the action had been trimmed by 16 minutes and the opening credits had included a handy history lesson. However, even though the court intrigue took some following, this still worked as a Grand Guignolic soap opera, with Margot's relationships with her husband, lover and fiercely protective brother, the Duc of Anjou (Pascal Greggory), being as satisfyingly melodramatic as Catherine's pitiless villainy. Thus, while it may not have performed well at the box-office, it has since exerted a considerable influence on the tone of historicals across the continent.
It all takes far too long, and you might want to bone up on 16th Century political history before you go, but with long-haired beauties of both sexes constantly flinging themselves into each other's arms in a frenzy of love or hatred - or both - this bodice-ripping drama is a Francophile's idea of heaven.