Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot is hardly the prim and proper costume drama meant just for the blue hairs. Set unflinchingly during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (where thousands of protestants were slaughtered), the film’s embrace of historic brutality destroys the nonchalance of middle school history books. The violence is moderately relentless, sudden flashes of blood returning just when you think we get a break from the viciousness. It’s a small reminder that your costume drama need not shy away from the darker realities of the period when recreating its aesthetic beauty.
Don’t worry, it never skimps on the beauty. I’m not much of a fan of the film, but the visual experience lulls you into a trance.
Shot by now Hollywood mainstay Philippe Rousselot, the film’s best visual compositions are stoic but expressive. The camera is undeterred by the violence on display without being fascinated by it, detached while allowing it to shock. We’re accustomed to seeing this type of slaughter (throat slashings, coughing up blood, a sword to the head) in a horror film, but here it’s more shocking for historical context.
Rousselot’s peak skills are controlling light. what Margot specifically lacks in ambition for movement and thematic depth in the frame, it makes up for with confoundingly precise shadows and light. Pillars of sunlight cut through the darkness like the romance breaks through the scheming. It’s both cheap and accurate to call many of the shots “painterly”, each of the compositions painstakingly precise.
Like Rousselot’s other best works, Interview with the Vampire and Dangerous Liaisons, he missed out on an Oscar nomination here as well. Perhaps like those examples, its gorgeous, but unimposing austerity is easy to pass over in favor of the other showier design elements.
The best shot comes in the film’s final moments, a small capsule of grotesque and sad romanticism.
Like the most evocative of paintings, the frame tells the whole story that preceded it – ghastly, emotional, fatalistic. Rousselot’s lighting somehow enhances the emotion and revulsion within the moment, finding the soul that has been so fleeting present throughout. It’s as ghostly as it is ghastly.
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