Margot, Not at the Wedding

François Clouet, The young Margaret of Valois, c. 1560

La Reine Margot recasts the 16th-century queen as a prisoner not of religion but of love—and class.

In a Miramax memo dated 1992, when it seemed unlikely his 1994 movie, La Reine Margot (an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s 1845 novel), would ever be made because of its cost, Patrice Chereau writes, “It will be anything, perhaps, but a period piece.” The late director was not interested in papal pomp and circumstance or in reimagining the Louvre in its 16th-century glory; rather, he wanted to show how religious wars have long played out at home and how fraught as exemplar a titled woman’s sexuality is. Chereau’s chosen narrative—Margot’s dooming passion for a soldier on the opposing side, serving as either impetus or shield for her class transgression—could be applied to many other times, other places, far from the plague-­ridden Parisian streets. We are familiar with the feminized burden of survival. We know, from West Side-type story after story, that no house can be built on such a divide. The aristocratic beauty loses her love, only to live out her new ideals solo; her formal marriage empty, her family morally corrupt. When you think of a brave king, you think of an army behind him. Not so his consort, if equally brave. Marguerite Duras gave, in The Lover, a perfect summation of the femme rebel: “Alone, queen-like. Their disgrace is a matter of course.”

Chereau’s version would not be the first time the story of Margot (or Margaret, or Marguerite) de Valois was taken to screen. In 1954, Jeanne Moreau starred in Jean Dreville’s film—also known as A Woman of Evil, which one must assume refers to Catherine de Medici, the meddling mother figure responsible for both a brutal massacre and the supposedly well-intentioned inter-religious marriage leading up to it.

In brief: France in 1572 is deep in religious division between the Catholics and Huguenots. The de Medici has planned a wedding of her daughter, Margot, to the French Huguenot King Henri of Navarre; the event will serve as Trojan horse, leading Protestant aristocrats not to a celebration of unity but into a massacre. Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, it will leave 3,000 Protestants dead, the Catholics then at an advantage. Meanwhile, Margot is uninterested in her arranged marriage and ­commences an affair with a Hugeunot soldier, La Mole. Intrigue and multiple deaths follow; Margot successfully harbors both her husband and other Protestant targets but fails to save her lover. The 1994 film ends with Margot alive, her lover’s decapitated head on her lap. (It is of note that the Bosnia War was taking place around the film’s shooting and release. In 1993, the 17-year-old Bosnian beauty queen Imela Nogic, having been crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo, chose not to waste her tears on “world peace.” Instead, she unfurled a banner that read don’t let them kill us. )

In historical reality, Margot, who did save her husband and other Protestants, was left behind when the king escaped. Surviving by sheer will, she endured banishment by her brother for promiscuous conduct and subsequently attempted to stage a coup d’etat in Asen, though it was met with citizen revolt. She was eventually imprisoned by this same brother for 18 years, during which she would write her memoirs. (Her marriage would be annulled after her estranged husband reclaimed the throne.) It is said that when Margot returned to society, she took up a more humanitarian path and retained her title as queen despite the king—her former husband—having remarried.

The high-stakes emotional and ideological growth of Margot in Chereau’s film is mostly the director’s fantasy. What is compelling and true in it is that Margot confronts her powerlessness through passion that ignites her secular spiritual development. It is no longer about two religions, alike in dignity, but loosely about unequal foundations. Betraying first her aristocratic mother (in saving the Protestants) and then her royal husband (in romancing a soldier), Margot twice “leaves the side of the oppressors to side with the oppressed,” as Chereau put in his notes for the film. For a queen, this is unusual, but what happens in turn is not. As the king leaves the scene, so does La Mole, as do the men in so many narratives of war, either for glory or for death. Margot is the Penelope, if Odysseus were never to return.

Of the queen while she reigned, Dumas wrote that “the French, who possessed her, were proud to see such a lovely flower flourishing in their soil, and foreigners who passed through France returned home dazzled with her beauty if they had but seen her, and amazed at her knowledge if they had discoursed with her; for Marguerite was not only the loveliest, she was also the most erudite woman of her time.” All this may have been true, but it’s also an expedient description of a dead queen in the France of 1845, when royal hagiography suits a nation in economic decline. What distinguishes Margot, and what is implicit in Chereau’s own notes and film, is that she wasn’t, like Marie Antoinette, a sacrificial lamb. She was—and it somehow sounds wrong, but she was—a survivor.

Some ’90s babies love a good Dazed and Confused reference or a Reality Bites–inspired look. My cinematic rite of passage was La Reine Margot. This movie ruined me. I was 11 when it was released and was living in France at the time; I have since seen it more than 20 times, in various countries and states of undress. It haunts me still; I knew so young that, like Margot, I would be a survivor even when I’d want to be the martyr. It is hard to accept that no matter how depressive a realist you are, there are no escape routes save for fleeting passions. No longer just a beautiful figurehead or a hot, witchy seductress, Margot became for me the archetype of a woman with soft power, married to hard power—a woman for whom each decision is more like a double bind. There is no leaving the side of the oppressors, even when you sympathize with the oppressed; Margot can’t take away the circumstances of her birth. She can’t adulterate her way to martyrdom. (Remember bell hooks: “Don’t you think the biggest lie of our contemporary liberation movements is that who you fuck radicalizes you?”) But if she must keep her lineage—evil mother, incestuous brothers, and all—she can reject, to some degree, her legacy. How many queens have pretended their way to wealth and neat little portraits to secure a comfortable, jeweled, and plotted place in history? The sex is a decisive factor in the power of Chereau’s adaptation, not least because it’s secretly and by far the most violent part.

In the film, Margot (played by Isabelle Adjani) leaves to seek a lover in the filthy streets, dressed in her blue velvet gown with a black mask (which is forever in my stable of fetishes). She lands upon the handsome, grizzled La Mole (Vincent Perez), and then there she is up against the wall with a man she never knew, a man who should have been her enemy, in the city that belongs to her new husband. It is a shockingly beautiful scene, yet also perverse and raunchy. She hikes up her embroidered skirt, made of the finest material, and has a Protestant soldier penetrate her on the very streets where the massacre of his people takes place. In a way that’s both sacrificial and shamelessly self-satisfying, she permits a revenge upon her body for the crimes of her “side.” That’s romance? Ruined me.

In Chereau’s notes, he calls La Mole “an idealistic Protestant, both pure and fierce.” The passion Margot finds with him is counterintuitive; only peaceful redemption, in holy matrimony to King Henri, was thought a reasonable means to end the French Wars of Religion. Everything is a paradox, according to Chereau, who notes, “We shall have to show this pagan yet fanatical period, to show how religious and sensuous it was, show death alongside the pleasures of the flesh, the feeling of sin alongside the taste for pleasure.” And the paradox is worst for Margot. She is not a frail queen, a Disney princess with an evil, plotting mother, or a ready victim. It is not religion (could Medici represent not just bad faith, but the worst faith?) that is her opiate; rather, it’s romantic love. She is both a paperback heroine and her antithesis. Rather than turning a stereotypical bad bachelor into a suitable husband, she turns a good, religious soldier into a bad woman’s lover. In the beginning, La Mole believes Margot to be evil; by the end, she’s saved his life by allowing him to die a martyr—pure again, as all martyrs are. She will merely attain a survival attenuated by disgrace.

In Marguerite de Valois’s own writings, she says, “Women suffer more from disappointment than men, because they have more of faith and are naturally more credulous.” Perhaps. She also says, “Love works in miracles every day: such as weakening the strong, and strengthening the weak; making fools of the wise, and wise men of fools; favoring the passions, destroying reason, and in a word, turning everything topsy-turvy.” Margot’s sexuality, her hot soft power, was used against her from the beginning. Her mother—ugly, unloved by her husband, and finding refuge in cunning—plotted to use her as bait for the brutal massacre. The daughter—beautiful, not perhaps so cunning—resisted the plot, and tried to annul her dangerous sexuality by reconstituting it as love of the first man, La Mole, who really tempted her. (See also, among others: Princess Di.)

The role of queen is that of the greatest visibility and least actual power in the land. She is protected not as a wife but as a mother to an heir, so it is no wonder that tales of queens becoming adulteresses are common throughout historical adaptations, if not history itself. Sex without procreation becomes the only way to refuse one’s role. It’s not a revolution, but in Margot’s case, it is a passion that fades to compassion.