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The Historical Plausibility of Queen Margot A Film Analysis

Kimberly Simmonds, B. A.

“France is deeply divided by the wars of religion raging across Europe. Catholics and Protestants have been fighting and killing each other for years. Charles IX, a Catholic, was crowned at the age of ten. For many years, it was his mother, Catherine de’Medici, that really controlled France. Now, the Protestant leader, Admiral Coligny, has gained the King’s trust and is trying to lead him into a dangerous war against Catholic Spain. The King’s brothers, Anjou, Alencon and their ally, Duke de Guise, are opposed to Admiral Coligny and his influence. In an attempt to regain her power and take credit for bringing peace, Catherine has arranged the marriage of her daughter, Margot, to her Protestant cousin, Henri de Bourbon, the King of the French province of Navarre. On August 18, thousands of Protestants have come from the countryside for the wedding and have begun to mix with the Catholic population. A stifling heat wave that has hit Paris is yet another provocation for a city already on the verge of rebellion…”1

Queen Margot begins on the eve of the wedding of Henry of Navarre and Margot of Valois. The two have been arranged to be married with the hopes of bringing peace between the Catholics and the Huguenots. The pair do not favor each other, Henry being afraid that he will be killed by the plotting family of Margot, and Margot does not favor her husband to be, and knows that she is a pawn in the game of peace cooked up by her brother, King Charles IX, and her mother, Catherine de’Medici. Regardless of how the two feel about each other, they are married in a lavish, exquisite and expensive ceremony with hundreds of guests in attendance. Many thousands more have traveled to Paris to take part in the festivities. As a festival to celebrate the marriage rages on in the city, tensions run high throughout the royal family. Henry and his advisors are convinced that a fight is


Queen Margot (1994), DVD, directed by Patrice Chereau (Burbank: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc.)


going to break out, and Admiral Coligny, a Huguenot and favorite advisor of the King, is pushing for war against Spain. Catherine plots Coligny’s death and hires a hitman to kill him the following day. Margot, who almost seems oblivious to the fact that she just got married, tries to reconnect with her lover, de Guise, who is jealous of her new marriage. After he pushes Margot away, she decides to take herself to the streets and has a passionate connection with La Mole, a Protestant soldier who has come to Paris to meet up with Coligny and join his fight. The hitman who is hired by Catherine to kill Coligny fails, shooting the Admiral in the arm. Crowds of Huguenots begin to protest, asking for justice, thinking that Coligny is dead. Worried about the impending violence, Catherine and her son, Anjou, urge Charles to snuff out any problems right away by killing the Huguenot leaders. In a state of distress, the King gives the order to not only kill the leaders, but to kill all of the Protestants in the area, anyone who could do damage to him. As bells toll, the Catholic soldiers make their way into the homes, beds, and workplaces of the Protestants in Paris. They are stripped of their clothing and murdered in cold blood: they are stabbed, shot, their throats are slit, limbs are cut off; the killing needed to take place as quickly as possible to prevent any sort of organization on part of the Protestants. 2

Margot, who is barricaded in her rooms, is startled by an injured man who has made his way into her area of the palace. The man turns out to be La Mole, the man who she had relations with just days before, and she takes pity on him and tries to care for the wounded man. She is, however, rushed from her rooms in order to save Henry, who has been taken by her family and is being made to convert or die. La Mole tries to follow her, but ends up back in the streets where all of the fighting is taking place. Margot manages to save Henry from her family by convincing him to convert to Catholicism. They are both imprisoned in the Louvre because Charles (and Catherine) wants to keep them close and under watchful eyes. La Mole is found by an executioner who is cleaning up the bodies of the perished off the streets, and is nursed back to health. La Mole leaves to raise money and men to come back and save Henry and his lover, Margot, from the grips of Catherine and her sons. In the meantime, Catherine plots to kill Henry, whom she is convinced is trying to steal the throne from her boys. She has her perfume maker (who is also her poison maker) poison some lipstick which is given to Charlotte, a baroness and Henry’s lover, in the hopes that it will poison and kill him. This plan fails when Margot rushes into the room just as Henry is about to kiss Charlotte, and 3

Charlotte dies instead. After Henry saves the life of Charles on a hunting trip, Catherine becomes enraged and the second attempt at killing Henry is made. She has a poisoned book delivered to him, but her son, Charles, opened and read the book instead. Charles becomes very sick, and has a long, painful illness. La Mole comes back to Paris to attempt to rescue Henry and Margot, but is only successful in getting Margot out of the Louvre. They spend another passionate night together, but La Mole insists that Margot go back to the palace so that nothing happens to Henry if they realize that she is gone. Margot returns to the castle and finds that her brother is dying. La Mole makes another attempt to rescue the pair, but is found out, captured and sentenced to death. Margot begs for the life of her lover at her brother’s bedside, but her brother tells her that it is too late. Charles dies just after La Mole is put to death. Henry is able to escape back to his kingdom where he converts back to Protestantism, much to the joy of his people. Margot brings embalming fluid to the executioner, in the hopes that he will be able to preserve her lover’s beauty, even in death. She sets off in a carriage to meet Henry in Navarre and escape the reality of the death and carnage that she has had to endure for so long.2


Queen Margot (1994), DVD, directed by Patrice Chereau (Burbank: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc.)


La Reine Margot (or Marguerite de Valois), written by Alexandre Dumas in 1845, is the sensationalist and fictionalized story that Queen Margot is based on. Knowing that the film is based on a work of fiction, one must also assume that the film is fiction as well. If the viewer does not know anything of the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre, however, or about France or Dumas’ book, it would be very easy to assume that the goings on of the film are in fact true, which some of them are. “Chereau’s film perpetuates the version of the myth of Marguerite de Valois, deploying some rather dubious [references] not found in Dumas’ novel. [Chereau] draws from some of the worst political-pornographic pamphlets under the pretext of a realist vision of the Valois court, making Marguerite a nymphomaniac who goes hunting for men in the streets of Paris when her court lovers fail her.” 3 So, was Margot a chaste princess who simply got a bad name from Dumas? Not likely. In fact, de Guise was one of Margot’s lovers. They wanted to be married, but Catherine did not want the Guise family to gain power. An ambassador to Phillip II of Spain reported on an incident one evening when de Guise was seen going in and out of Margot’s private rooms. Margot was


Julianne Pidduck. La Reine Margot (Champaign:University of Illinois Press, 2005), 58.


summoned to her mother’s room, where King Charles and Catherine were waiting to lecture her. “I am assured that the mother took her hand to her daughter, and that her son did likewise to the extent that she was rendered senseless.” 4 Charles, still angry with his sister, hired a man to kill de Guise on their next hunting trip, but Margot was able to warn him in time. 5 Soon after these incidents, de Guise was married off to the Princess of Porcien.6 La Mole was also one of the lovers of Margot. Their clandestine meeting on the streets of Paris is one unlikely part of this story. “This encounter plays on exploitative folklore rather than historical probability, as it is highly unlikely that two young women of the court would wander the streets of Paris unaccompanied (let alone that they would search for sex in the streets).”7 Also untrue is the scene where La Mole enters Margot’s chambers during the massacre and falls into Margot’s arms, bleeding and hurt. According to Margot herself, in her Memoires, “an injured Protestant Lerac seeks refuge in her chambers during the massacre and is spared by the captain of the guards due to Margot’s compassion. Dumas’


Mark Strage. Women of Power: The Life and Times of Catherine de’Medici (New York: Harcourt, 1976), 147. Charlotte Haldane. Queen of Hearts: Marguerite of Valois (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1968), 28. 6 Strage, Women of Power, 148. 7 Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 59. 5


novel, and in turn, its cinematic adaptations incorporate this episode in a boudoir account of the massacre, where La Mole is substituted for Lerac.”8 Another falsehood was that La Mole was a Protestant. In actuality, he was a Catholic and a good friend of Alencon, Margot’s brother and the next in line for the throne after Charles.9 In the film, La Mole is blamed for poisoning Charles with his hunting book, and is beheaded. This is partly true, historically speaking. La Mole was accused of creating a wax figure of the king and sticking it with pins in order to accelerate the death of Charles (who actually died of tuberculosis, not of pins or poison)10 so that Alencon might ascend to the throne more quickly.11 He was tortured and beheaded at the behest of Catherine. True is the story of the duo who could not love each other less. Henry of Navarre and Margot were a couple whose “union was based solely on external and internal State policy by the bride’s mother and brother in collaboration with the Huguenot leaders, Coligny and Jeanne of Albert.” 12 Not one to trust the Protestant son-in-law, Catherine dispatched Charlotte de Sauve to watch over Navarre, and she became his mistress. In the film, Charlotte becomes too involved with the King of Navarre, and stops reporting her findings to Catherine. In 8

Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 20. Haldane, Queen of Hearts, 68. 10 Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 5. 11 Haldane, Queen of Hearts, 72. 12 Haldane, Queen of Hearts, 30. 9


actuality, Charlotte reported her findings religiously to the power hungry woman, hoping to stay on her good side.13 As an instrument to poison Henry, there was no evidence found. In this time period, reformation was spreading through Europe, and according to McKay in A History of Western Society, “Protestant teachings called the power of sacred images into question, and mobs in many cities took down and smashed statues, stained-glass windows and paintings…Catholic mobs responded by defending images, and crowds on both sides killed their opponents, often in gruesome ways.”14 The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was no different. Just six days after the arranged marriage of Henry of Navarre and Marguerite of Valois, which “was intended to help reconcile Catholics and Huguenots,” according to McKay,15 the massacre of Huguenot wedding guests in Paris and the slaughter of Protestants across France took place. The gruesome violence shown in the film is probably not even a sliver of the horrors that took place. An estimated 3,000 were killed in Paris and 70,000 killed in all of France.16 Like in the film, it is the botched assassination of Coligny on August 22, 1572 (a few days after the royal wedding) 13

Haldane, Queen of Hearts, 71. John P. McKay. A History of Western Society (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2008), 473. 15 McKay, A History, 473. 16 th Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6 ed., s.v. “Saint Bartholomew’s Day, massacre of.” 14


that sparked off the massacre a few days later.17 Also, when watching this film, it feels like the events take place within days of each other; in actuality, they take place over a period of two years.18 Pidduck, in her book analyzing the film, says “Indeed, part of the challenge of ‘filmed history’ involves injecting immediacy into times already dead and gone, in reinventing past events as somehow ‘live.’”19 Patrice Chereau, the director of the film, did a great job of executing a film that did just that. He deliberately shot much of the film on an intimate scale close to the faces and bodies of the actors.20 This really brings the viewer closer to the characters, makes it feel as if they could jump through the screen and continue on with their sword fight, or run away from a marriage they want no part of. Every emotion is seen on their faces, every pain seen writhing through their bodies. The lighting plays a key role in this as well. The director used chiaroscuro, an element first used in painting, where most of the picture would be cast in a dark, shadowy light with a sort of spotlight illuminating what he wanted the viewer to focus on. Much of the film is dark, with a few exceptions, like the hunting scene where Navarre saves Charles IX from a wild boar, and the scene where the executioner is unloading hundreds of dead, 17

Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 6. Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 8. 19 Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 6. 20 Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 45. 18


stark naked bodies into mass graves. Chereau did this to show the importance of viewing the violence and brutality that had taken place. Another feature that helps shape the film is the costumes. Two scenes show an excellent representation of period costume: first, the wedding scene, and then the scene where la Mole visits Amsterdam to collect funding and soldiers to rescue Navarre and Margot. In the wedding scene, Margot is dressed in a gown of rich red and silver with a high collar and stiff white lace ruffle. Her face is heavily powdered white and her hair is elaborately pinned up with pearls and precious stones.21 Everyone else is dressed in celebration finery, though Catherine is wearing mourning black with a ‘spidery’ gold collar.22 According to Pidduck, 800 extras were required to fill the basilica where the wedding scene was filmed, and every one of the extras were costumed in period garb-from the waist up. The lower bodies of seated figures were not costumed, which saved 400 pairs of shoes.23 In the scene where la Mole visits Amsterdam, a group of Protestants of all ages are peacefully gathered, praying and reading, listening to the political fortunes of Protestants across Europe, showing that people of all ages and


Pidduck. La Reine Margot, 47. Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 50. 23 Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 53. 22


nationalities are caught up in events pertaining to reformation. All of these people are wearing black, sort of what you would think of as a habit today. Their heads are cloaked in white kerchiefs, and they wear white chemises with high necks underneath all of the black dress. Although this scene is an invention for the film, and never took place in Dumas’ book, the costume designer did a great job creating the Protestant garb of the period. Most of the other scenes in the movie were not historically accurate in terms of costuming, such as the wedding festival scene where women are seen dancing around with their hair loose and their bodices untied without chemises to cover the upper chest and neck. These “dresses were designed for sexual display rather than historical accuracy, as aristocratic women’s gowns of the period were characterized by stiff collars and relatively high necklines (along the lines of Margot’s high-necked wedding dress).” 24 When compared to Dumas’ novelization of the events surrounding the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the book and the film are very similar because both were created with the intent to be entertaining, not necessarily historically accurate. However, when comparing the film with non-fiction historical sources, you can see where fact blurs into fiction. Margot was so


Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 55.


concerned with ‘the truth’ being told that she wrote her own “Memoires” and said this: “These memoirs might merit the honorable name of history from the truths contained in them, as I shall prefer truth to embellishment. In fact, to embellish my story I have neither leisure nor ability.”25 Because her own work gives her control over her own story, her biographers avoid it to maintain their kind of critically normative perspective.26 Without any background historical information on Queen Margot, Henry of Navarre, and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, it would be easy for someone to come away with an inaccurate view of France’s violent and intolerant past. While the film ends letting the viewer know that Henry became King of France after Alencon died, and Margot and Henry were divorced later and remained good friends for the rest of their lives, you come away from the film yearning for more information. Henry reigned for 12 years and was remembered fondly in history as ‘Good King Henri.’ He also created the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which granted freedom to Protestants.27 In 1599, the marriage of Henry and Margot was annulled and Henry married Marie de’Medici who gave birth to


Cathleen M. Bauschatz, “ ‘Plaisir et Proffict in the Reading and Writing of Marguerite de Valois,’ ” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7, no. 1 (1988):23. 26 Bauschatz, “Plaisir,” 27. 27 Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 9.


Henry’s heir, Louis XIII. Margot offered unwavering support to the family, especially after Henry was murdered and until her death in 1615.28 Most times, films are made to sell theater tickets. Without adding drama, romance, intrigue, even violence, audiences may find a story that only warrants a paragraph or two in most history texts to be dull. A dull story without added plot details will not sell tickets or make the studio producing it any money. The team of Chereau and Dumas bring all of the elements an audience is looking for together, making a breathtaking, ghastly, yet beautiful film that warrants a spot in the “Girls Night In” section at Barnes and Noble, just not anywhere near the documentary section.


Pidduck, La Reine Margot, 9-10.



Bauschatz, Cathleen M. “ ‘Plaisir et Proffict in the Reading and Writing of Marguerite de Valois.’ ” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7, no. 1 (1988): 27-48. Haldane, Charlotte. Queen of Hearts: Marguerite of Valois. New York: The BobbsMerrill Company, Inc.,


McKay, John P. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Pidduck, Julianne. La Reine Margot. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Queen Margot (1994). DVD. Dir. Patrice Chereau. Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc. Strage, Mark. Women of Power: The Life and Times of Catherine de’Medici. New York: Harcourt, 1976.


The Historical Plausibility of Queen Margot: A Film Analysis  
The Historical Plausibility of Queen Margot: A Film Analysis  

A historical analysis of the film, Queen Margot, which is based on the novel, La Reine Margot, by Alexandre Dumas.