The French film, opera, and theater director Patrice Chéreau, who died in this past October at age 68, once told an interviewer that he saw human relations as being like rugby or football, in which “everybody is intertwined, and trying to kick everyone else.” Chéreau perceived love strategically, in terms of forged and broken alliances. His film The Wounded Man (1983), for instance, shows a young man fleeing his sheltered family life for a stop-and-start affair with a roughhousing older male vagrant. Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) offers emotional battles among former friends and lovers of a recently deceased man; their arguing bodies sway inside a train’s passenger cars, risking physical collisions as violent as their words.
Tenderness fills Chéreau’s films both as safe haven and as weaponry. It can be found throughout Queen Margot (1994), Chéreau’s lone period epic, which is consistent in feeling with his works set in the present. Queen Margot‘s tale of romance in a bloody era (whose script Chéreau and co-writer Danièle Thompson loosely adapted from Alexandre Dumas’s 1845 novel) was originally released in the United States in a version about 20 minutes shorter than Chéreau’s original. Film Forum screens a 4K restoration on DCP of a new director’s cut, which Chéreau oversaw before his death.
Queen Margot opens in 1572, a decade into religious wars between the reigning Roman Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants). To make peace, King Charles IX (played by Jean-Hugues Anglade) has arranged a marriage between his sister Marguerite, or Margot (Isabel Adjani), and the Huguenot King Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). However, the siblings’ widowed and spidery mother, Queen Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), has made other plans: Less than a week after the wedding, she orchestrates a massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day. The death of thousands of Henry’s people suddenly thrusts him into planning how to survive, and bluntly forces Margot to choose between her birth family and her spouse.
She must also negotiate between her head and her heart. Not that she has given the latter to Henry; both newlyweds understand their marriage as a business arrangement. Rather, her soul yearns for the fugitive Huguenot La Môle (Vincent Pérez), with whom she makes love in the streets after her wedding and to whom she swears loyalty until death — and even, if it should soon reach him, after. La Môle helps her turn away from the conquerors and toward the victims. Henry, witnessing his wife’s change, accepts her attachment to another; even as he himself comes to desire her, he seeks her trust over her body.
Though Queen Margot‘s sound, sets, costumes, and camerawork collectively stun, Chéreau prioritized his actors, and he gave his ensemble ample freedom to perform. Adjani and Auteuil in particular engage in a delicate, uncertain series of movements together, standing off squarely at some points and collapsing united at others. Margot and Henry’s enmeshments lead them to play roles more important for each other than those of lovers: supporters. “Keep a light heart,” she assures him. “Pretend you are free.” In exchange for her strength, he strives to open himself — to her as she chooses to come to him, and to all those she loves.