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ROYAL BLOOD

As soon as Cochran and Shapiro get done with this thing in L.A., they could get a call from Catherine de Medicis.

Patrice Chereau's noisy costume drama, Queen Margot, casts Catherine as the heavy in the bloody wars between Catholics and emergent Protestants in sixteenth-century France and in the palace intrigues besetting her dimwitted son, Charles IX. If she doesn't actually need a murder defense from beyond the grave, she still might want to sue for libel.

The putative source of the film--whose chief virtue is showing us the violence, grubbiness and evil of the late Renaissance, a time movies usually idealize--is a minor novel by Alexandre Dumas. Some would say all the novels of Dumas pere are minor, and almost no one would claim they are historically accurate: The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo buckle plenty of swash, but they don't withstand any scrutiny.

Neither does Queen Margot--despite the "realism" of its incessant throat-slashings, unbathed monarchs and pitiless plots to murder and pillage. The wisdom of Catherine's de facto reign for the two decades following Henry II's death is scarcely acknowledged: In truth, she not only engineered the mixed marriage between her daughter, Marguerite de Valois (the "Margot" of the title), and the Protestant Henry of Navarre, she also forced rival theologians and princes to hash out their differences and was otherwise a reasonable leader in an era of great crisis.

What we see of her here, in the wintry and severe person of Virna Lisi, is a shrew, a soulless calculator and a murderess.

Why make an issue of events that unfolded more than 400 years ago? Because movies, in this postliterate age, have a greater power than ever to corrupt history. Witness the exaggerations of Oliver Stone in JFK or the unearned sainthood of the Kevin Costner character in Dances With Wolves.

Okay. I'll get down off that horse now. Aside from dissing Kate, Queen Margot (a remake, actually: Jeanne Moreau starred in a forgettable 1954 version) shows us the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (the Catholic slaughter of 30,000 Protestants in town for the Margot-Henry nuptials) in the kind of bloody detail usually reserved for a Rambo movie. It shows us feuding noble families and hot-tempered Huguenots in such dizzying profusion that the scholars in the house may go running to their history books. And, because the French are still French, the film shows us the fiery, willful Margot (Isabelle Adjani, who's lovelier than ever) venturing into the alleys of Paris for some spirited sport-sex. And her hot extramarital affair with La Mole (Vincent Perez).

Director Chereau spends two and a half hours glossing a volatile period in history, and he's best at the killing. Among many, many victims you'll find Charlote de Sauve, whose lipstick is poisoned, poor, stupid Charles (Jean-Hugues Anglade), the sticky leaves of whose book are poisoned, Coligny, the admiral of France, and assorted Guises and Montmorencys. Unfortunately, the Edict of Nantes, in which the heroic Henry IV granted religious and political freedom to all his subjects, was still a ways down the road. But that, as they say at the castle, is another story.

 
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