The 1994 film La Reine Margot (Queen Margot) is very artsy, very French, and bloody as a butcher shop. It tells a "romantic" and fictionalized version of the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France in 1572, 446 years ago today. It's compelling-- once I was watching it while sewing, and I sewed right over my finger! (Don't watch movies while sewing unless you've seen them a bunch of times and don't need to pay too much attention.) Today, I want to talk briefly of the history of the massacre and review the movie. Tomorrow, I'll highlight the movie's costuming choices, especially the lace.
THE ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S DAY MASSACRE
In the early 1570's, "tensions" (such a meager euphemism) between French Protestants (known as Huguenots) and French Catholics were taut as piano wire. The Huguenots were a minority group, but had a lot of well-placed noble adherents. Their religion was not just a matter of personal conscience, but psychological threatening to their Catholic neighbors (how would you like it if someone told you your efforts to be right with God were futile and even wicked?) and destabilizing to the monarchy (which was steeped in Catholic ritual and sanction). Religious disturbance and warfare had already gone on, and there was a tenuous cease-fire that threatened to explode at any moment.
The ruling family of France was Catholic. King Charles IX was in his early twenties, weak-willed, and unstable. His powerful mother Catherine de Medici had ruled as regent until he was thirteen, and she continued to influence government, generally with an eye to preserving her family's power and bringing the Huguenots back into line with the Catholic throne. Charles had a Protestant admiral named Coligny, whose pet project was to get the King to support the Dutch Protestants in their battle against the Spanish. The King was persuadable, and this made his mother very nervous.
One often overlooked reason for their actions was that the Huguenots had an army encamped outside Paris, and there had been threats of reprisals for Coligny. Plus, the Hugeunots had a history of attempting to kidnap the King of France (always to "save" him from evil advisors, never in outright rebellion), and the royal family really didn't want the wars of religion to start again. Perhaps they were persuaded that cutting off the head of the threatening beast would end it once and for all? At any rate, assassination was not a new idea in this conflict, as various leaders on both sides had perished so already.
At dawn on August 24th, the murders began, and quickly got out of hand. De Guise, who had a grudge against Coligny, went with the Royal guards to finish him off, but was also heard to say "Kill them all--it is the King's command!" Was he just talking to his men about the other assassinations on their list? Regardless, excitable crowds took this as an order to murder their hated neighbors. Commoner and noble suffered alike: Huguenot shops were looted and burned, mostly by their fellow civilians roused to mob violence; and Coligny's family and servants, and Henry de Navarre's attendants staying within the Louvre were killed by Catholic nobles, Swiss mercenaries, and the royal guard! The spark caught and the fire spread outside the city, into the countryside as well. Killings continued into the autumn despite a royal cease-and-desist being issued on August 25th. (It didn't help that the cease and desist was contradicted, then reissued several times, showing the vacillation of Charles IX.) Even today, no-one knows how many died, because Protestant and Catholic sources give wildly different numbers. Based on how much the crown paid gravediggers in the aftermath to clean up the mess, the number in Pairs was at least 2000.
In the aftermath, Catholic monarchs and the Pope celebrated the massacre, seeming to think that the Protestants had it coming for threatening and plotting against the crown (which was Charles IX's official line). Protestant countries reviled it as a religious crime, not a political one, and called the victims martyrs. Many Huguenots within France converted to Catholicism under pressure and in fear of their lives, while those who remained steadfast painted a picture of royal treachery and changed their political position from trying to save France from Catholicism to trying to save France from a wicked king, by advancing Henry of Navarre as a good king instead. Around this time, the (probably false) story was circulated that Charles has stood in his palace window shooting at his own subjects.
Henry de Navarre survived, but was forced to convert to Catholicism to save his life. He was a reluctant guest of the French court for a few years, then escaped in 1576 to renounce Catholicism and lead Protestant forces against the crown. More warfare followed. Charles IX died and was succeeded by his brother Henry III.
Marguerite and Henry de Navarre didn't have much of a marriage; they lived apart for most of it and she sided with the Catholic league during the wars where he was fighting as a Protestant. She also took lovers, much to her mother's horror.
Catherine de Medici lived long enough to see her sons Charles and Francis die and to be estranged from her daughter Marguerite. Her son Henry III was ruling France in 1588, and he took steps to disengage her from power before ordering the brutal murder of some members of the rival Guise family, which upset her very much (though seemingly more because it was unwise than because it was wrong). When she died in January 1589, Henry de Navarre was the heir apparent to the French throne, and Catherine's only consolation as she looked on the ruin of her sons was that at least her daughter (whom she'd cut out of her will in disgust) was married to the next king! Her legacy was tarnished by the massacre, with lots of people forgetting all her efforts to establish peace and unity prior to the killings, and blaming her, as a woman and a foreigner (Italian) for all the evils that occurred.
Henry de Navarre got to wear the crown of France later in 1589, though he had to re-convert to Catholicism to settle things in his new kingdom. (In French law, you could not inherit the crown through the female line, so Henry didn't get to be king through Marguerite; he was already in line by his own blood, and Marguerite became queen through marriage to him!) His marriage to Marguerite was annulled in 1599 to make way for a wife who could actually give him an heir. After that, the two got along a lot better, and Marguerite became a help and support to the crown and a legitimizer of the new dynasty, the Bourbons. During his lifetime, people considered Henry de Navarre a religious flip-flopper, but he was a savvy politician. His tolerant religious policies (and the fact that many Catholics were horrified by the massacre and became less strident) finally ended the Wars of Religion in France, and he is now considered le bon roi Henri.
Marguerite was famous in her day for her beauty, culture, writings, and political savvy, but was also subject to many defamatory rumors painting her as a she-wolf sex-maniac. Any culture that values women primarily for their sexual uses will also use sexual insults to discredit them. This mixed bag of truth and gossip colors her reputation to this day.
THE 1994 FILM
So the film is... different from the history. I'm not going to do a Lost in Adaptation style blow-by-blow, but I'll point out the biggest differences. The first thing is that the film-makers were making a movie version of the 1845 book by Alexandre Dumas, père (La Reine Margot, or in English Marguerite de Valois) rather than attempting a true historical account. Both the book and the movie emphasize the decadence of the courtiers, painting the Valois family as obscene, mad, and criminal, while introducing a love affair for Margot.
The bulk of the blame for planning the massacre falls on Catherine de Medici, who's irretrievably wicked. The Valois menfolk are either lascivious and blood-thirsty or effete and pathetic. As for the murderers, though they spout religious rhetoric as they do their evil deeds, it's clear that neither religion nor politics motivate them as much as blood-lust and thrills.
The massacre is tensely paced, scored with creepy music, and bloody. The order of events is changed slightly, to good cinematic effect: in reality the assassination of Coligny seemed to spark wider killings, but in the film they have widespread killings start first so Coligny can hear the screams and clang of swords from his sickbed, and know what's coming for him. I wonder about all the nudity... to watch the movie you'd get the idea that every slain Huguenot was immediately stripped bare by looters, and the streets were heaped with nude corpses. This may be true... people certainly looted corpses, and in the fifteen hundreds, clothing was valuable. Contemporary drawings and paintings either show the victims dressed and armed (Catholic propaganda) or unarmed in their nightclothes (Protestant propaganda), then stripped.
Margot's reputation as a sex-fiend is maintained, but presented sympathetically: in the book she's a woman with lovers, excused on account of her great beauty and tender feeling; in the film her sex addiction is a tragic consequence of being molested by her brothers. The wedding night, for instance: in the book, she has her lover in her room and her husband comes for a platonic visit while the lover hides. In the film, that happens, but then when both men leave her alone she puts on a mask and hunts for anonymous sex in the streets of Paris. This lustiness is symbolically more "natural" than the incestuous family she comes from and the loveless marriage she's forced into, and serves to introduce her to her romance for the rest of the story: a Huguenot soldier called La Môle. She saves his life during the massacre, then the two try to be together despite all the court intrigues that follow. See, the massacre is not the end of the movie, just the beginning of a new plot of dread, poisonings, mistaken killings, and thwarted lovers. One poisoning goes terribly awry and leads to the death of the king and execution of La Môle. Margot grieves her lover by having his head embalmed and taking it with her into exile (as ya do).
Sex and violence never decouple in this film, and by the end the viewer is in a state where watching someone get stabbed seems sexual and watching people have sex seems violet. It's interesting to consider the effects of different media. Dumas' novel mingles sex and violence just as much as the film, but the reader comes away with scorn for the morally degraded characters, like when the Duchess Henriette talks about how she fell in lust with Coconnas while watching him murder people: "it is an admirable story—is no less poetical and romantic than yours . . . I was watching them pillage and burn a house . . . and the first thing I saw was a sword flashing so brilliantly that it seemed to light up the whole scene. I was filled with admiration for this fiery sword . . . My enthusiasm awoke—I stood there panting, trembling at every blow aimed at him, at every thrust he parried! That was a quarter hour of emotion such as I had never before experienced"! In the film, we see her panting and licking her lips amidst the bloody mess, and while we are revolted, we're also drawn into degradation. It's some trick of empathy: watching people do immoral things compromises us more than reading about it because it's human nature to identify with human faces and expressions, even wicked ones.
Mostly, the film manages to make a highly religious society look like a bacchanal. Everyone, Catholic and Protestant, seems totally fine with the sexual revolution! Such hedonism as the movie shows would have horrified anyone living in the 1570's in France.
In Hollywood during the Depression, there was a saying: "six reels of sin and one of condemnation". It referred to a story-telling formula that would give theater-goers lots of juicy stuff to enjoy, but keep the moralists happy by punishing the evil-doers in the end. The very end. After lots and lots of juicy fun. This film works on the assumption that there are no moralists, and we're all just in it for the juicy bits.
BUT I'M IN IT FOR THE COSTUMES!
For a good breakdown of the premeditation of the massacre, the Catholic encyclopedia has lots of interesting quotes from letters at the time. They mostly illustrate that assassination was a common idea batted around diplomatic circles, and show the Catholic perspective based on the story Charles IX told the pope.
For a general overview of the political and religious scene, with an emphasis on how the massacre shaped the spread of the Reformation in Europe, this BBC Panel Discussion called In Our Time: St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre brings several experts from different fields of study to bear on the topic.
For a look at the power of mythmaking and how the actual events got obscured and the accounts skewed first one way then another to serve successive generations' needs, this Boston University Lecture (2006) by Barbara Diefendorf is quite good.
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