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Queen Margot, 1994. Directed by Patrice Chéreau. Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Perez, Virna Lisi, Asia Argento.

The bloodiest day in American history is thought to be the New York Draft Riots in July of 1863 (memorably depicted on film in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York). The "official" count of the dead was in the vicinity of 300 people, but that count only reflected "white Americans" as one might expect from a society in which the Know Nothings still held formidable sway. Based on conteporary accounts, the true number is nearer 7000, most of them black or Irish. What does this tell us about America? It tells us that, when it comes to the massacre, we are rank amateurs compared to the French.

Mark Twain, in comparing whether the French or the Comanche were more "civilized," notes that the massacre is the French national pastime (he decided that the Comanche were more civilized, if you must know). From the Paris Commune, to the Terror, to Vichy, the French have developed the massacre to a fine art. The piece de resistance of that art is The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August of 1572, in which Catholic France set upon their Protestant dissidents, the Hugeunots, and murdered practically all of them. Some 70,000 people in two days, by most accounts. In one of the Catholic Church's more shameful moments, the Vatican celebrated the massacre by striking a special medal in commemoration of "The Slaughter of the Hugeunots" and commissioned the painter, Vassari, to render the event. The painting still hangs in the Vatican.

This history is recounted in Patrice Chéreau's 1994 film, Queen Margot, which should be of interest to any fan of horror films. This is a film drenched in blood. Two things triggered the massacre: first, the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny, a Protestant advisor to the King. Second: the presence of most of the leaders of the Hugeunots at the politically motivated marriage of Queen Marguerite (Margot), daughter of Catherine De Medici, and Henri de Navarre, also a Protestant. The marriage was intended to quell the unrest between religious factions, but the assassination of Coligny was like throwing a match into a powerkeg. With all of the Hugeunot leaders conveniently in one place, it was easy to destroy them all. Cut off the head and kill the body, as they say. The massacre occurs in the first half of the film. The remainder deals with the fallout, and as the film is about the political machinations of a late medieval, early renaissance aristocracy, the fallout is also drenched in blood. Forget any romantic notions that these people resolved their differences with duels--as they do in the book by Alexandre Dumas upon which the film is nominally based--they were murderers and libertines to a one. Their weapons were sex, poison, a dagger in the back or across the throat. One of the late images tells the story of the film: Isabelle Adjani as Margot, clad in a blindingly white dress now stained with the blood of her poisoned brother, stands between the coffins of two dead men, one of them her lover. Neither man has a head. The heads are on the shelf in front of her.

I describe this film as being of interest to fans of horror movies not only for its violence, but also because it points out the essential timidity of historically themed horror films produced within the genre itself. There is nothing...nothing at all...in Hammer's recounting of the Elizabeth Bathory story in Countess Dracula (to pick one example) the equal of the violence and horror in Queen Margot. But don't approach it lightly. This is a film that can be profoundly confusing to a viewer with no prior knowledge of the story. There are dozens of characters in the film, most played by terrific actors, but there isn't anything like a scorecard. The story begins in thick of the plot, so the viewer is left to fend for himself. The sexual relationships may be as confusing as the politics, too, because everyone, it seems, is sleeping with everyone else. The filmmakers have taken the folk songs depicting Queen Margot's promiscuity and translated them literally to the screen. The resulting film is a bit of a hothouse, which would be a fault if most of it weren't true..