This prestigious, sweeping (and award-sweeping) historical about the religious wars between Catholics & Huguenots in 16th Century France is a hoot . . . though probably not meant to be. Working in an unaccustomed epic style, famed operatic regisseur & occasional film director Patrice Chéreau goes for a grim, moralizing tone, with modern horrors spilling into the streets, as the villainous Catherine de Medici (Queen Mother and the Mother-of-all-Queens) finds herself constantly thwarted in plans to herd her royal brood into a properly aligned dynastic destiny. But Chéreau keeps bumping up against the goofy plot mechanics built into Alexandre Dumas’ novelistic treatment of events. Imagine trying for a serious historical study of Louis XIV & XV using THE THREE MUSKETEERS as source material. Perhaps the wild swings in tone wouldn’t matter if Chéreau had the chops for handling multiple lines of action. For example, a big set piece involving a wild boar hunt should be running five narrative & motivational lines all at once, like a musical quintet in one of Chéreau’s opera productions. But he can barely juggle one or two. Still, this Games of Thrones-like power struggle has plenty to hold your attention, especially in the acting department. In chalk-white makeup as the aging Queen Mum, Virna Lisi attacks her role as fiercely as Gloria Swanson went at Norma Desmond. And while everyone else in the big cast gets their licks in, no one touches Lisi in pitch-perfect grief-stricken comic seething. (NOTE: The current subfusc DVD from Miramax needs a Director's Cut upgrade.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Daniel Auteuil & Vincent Perez, respectively husband & lover to Isabelle Adjani’s slightly zombie-like Queen Margot, were reunited three years later on LE BOSSU/ON GUARD!/’97, a remarkably successful faux-Dumas swashbuckler, directed with spirit, devilish charm & out-of-fashion moviemaking moxie by the rejuvenated hand of vet helmer Phillipe de Broca. Why deconstruct when the real thing is still so much fun?
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Heinrich Mann, brother of Thomas & BLUE ANGEL/’30 author, covered this territory in a pair of historical novels, YOUNG HENRY OF NAVARRE and HENRY, KING OF FRANCE. Lively, fascinating stuff, but very long.