A very significant portion of Queen Margot(1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles, based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel La Reine Margot) deals with Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez). In the film la Mole is a Huguenot soldier who has come to Paris to seek service under the Huguenot commanders gathered in Paris for the wedding of Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) to Margot (Isabella Adjani). Unfortunately, he gets caught up in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when Coconnas (Claudio Amendola) tries to kill him. In his desperate flight, la Mole staggers into Margot’s chambers, who prevents Coconnas from killing him. Later that same night, la Mole runs into Coconnas outside and the two men fight until they are both unconscious.
Instead of being buried with the rest of the dead, the two men are rescued by the executioner, who nurses them both back to health. La Mole has fallen in love with Margot and wants to see her again. He learns that Coconnas has access to Margot’s handmaid Henriette (in fact, they seem to be lovers) and when he meets Coconnas again, he discovers that the man has had a change of heart and now repents of the murders he committed that night. So with the aid of Henriette, la Mole becomes Margot’s lover and tries to find a way to help her escape the royal court. Navarre knows of their affair and gradually learns to tolerate it, since he doesn’t love Margot anyway.
Unfortunately, for la Mole, when Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi) hatches a plan to murder Navarre with a poisoned book, the book that gets used coincidentally turns out to be one that la Mole inherited from his father and sold to a bookdealer. It has la Mole’s name written in it. So when Catherine discovers to her horror that she’s poisoned her own son Charles IX, she blames the poisoning on la Mole, who by this time is known to be Margot’s lover. As a result, la Mole and Coconnas are apprehended and executed shortly after Charles’ death. Margot, acting on a comment la Mole once made to her, claims his head and has it preserved as a memento of their love.
Vincent Perez as la Mole
La Mole’s story is a grand example of the sort of story 19th century audiences had a taste for: doomed romance, dramatic changes of heart, narrow escapes, the struggle for redemption, and macabre details like preserved heads. But does it have any basis in fact?
The Real La Mole
While not entirely fiction, Dumas’s doomed lover is a far cry for the historical la Mole. Joseph Boniface de la Mole was a French nobleman, who does seem to have been part of the Huguenot faction at court. He was indeed rumored to have been Marguerite of Valois’ lover early in her marriage to Navarre. So that part is basically true.
But Marguerite didn’t rescue him from death during the Massacre. It was another man, the fortunate Huguenot M. de Teian, who benefitted from Marguerite’s somewhat unintentional intervention. Here is Marguerite’s description of what happened:
“As soon as I beheld it was broad day, I apprehended all the danger my sister had spoken of was over; and being inclined to sleep, I bade my nurse make the door fast, and I applied myself to take some repose. In about an hour I was awakened by a violent noise at the door, made with both hands and feet, and a voice calling out, “Navarre! Navarre!” My nurse, supposing the King my husband to be at the door, hastened to open it, when a gentleman, named M. de Teian, ran in, and threw himself immediately upon my bed. He had received a wound in his arm from a sword, and another by a pike, and was then pursued by four archers, who followed him into the bedchamber. Perceiving these last, I jumped out of bed, and the poor gentleman after me, holding me fast by the waist. I did not then know him; neither was I sure that he came to do me no harm, or whether the archers were in pursuit of him or me. In this situation I screamed aloud, and he cried out likewise, for our fright was mutual. At length, by God’s providence, M. de Nangay, captain of the guard, came into the bed-chamber, and, seeing me thus surrounded, though he could not help pitying me, he was scarcely able to refrain from laughter. However, he reprimanded the archers very severely for their indiscretion, and drove them out of the chamber. At my request he granted the poor gentleman his life, and I had him put to bed in my closet, caused his wounds to be dressed, and did not suffer him to quit my apartment until he was perfectly cured.”
If you’re interested, you can read her recollection of the Massacre (including this incident) here, under Letter V. You’ll find that it differs substantially from the film’s depiction of the slaughter.
But La Mole’s historical importance is completely unrelated to his relationship with Marguerite. What he’s actually remembered for is an attempt to assassinate Charles IX. He was a friend of François of Alençon, Margot and Charles’ youngest brother. In the film, Alençon is a secondary character; he participates in the Massacre, it’s hinted that he would like to see his brother dead, and in one scene he humiliates Margot and helps force her to confess her adultery.
In reality, before the Massacre, Alençon aligned himself with the Huguenot faction, which included Navarre and Admiral Coligny. When there was a proposal to marry his brother Henry of Anjou to Elizabeth I, Alençon acted as the French negotiator perhaps because he was seen as a Protestant sympathizer. When the Massacre happened, la Mole and another Huguenot nobleman, Annibal de Coconnas, were arrested and thrown in prison but survived, apparently due to their relationship with Alençon.
As Charles began his final decline, Alençon was implicated in a plot to assassinate Charles by means of a wax doll stabbed with pins. The doll was found in la Mole’s possession, and after being tortured, la Mole and Coconnas were both beheaded. Whether they had genuinely attempted to kill the king or were simply convenient scapegoats for Charles’ medical problems is unclear. Charles, however, was still alive when they were executed and only died later on, so Dumas has reversed the order of the events here. Margeurite mentions all of this in her memoirs (see the previous link, in Letter VII), and offers no suggestion that she had any feelings for la Mole at all, although it’s unlikely she would have admitted to the affair in such a document. There was indeed a rumor that Marguerite had his head preserved.
So what Dumas has done is taken two separate men, la Mole and de Teian, and conflated them. He’s built the post-Massacre portion of his story around la Mole’s eventual execution and has greatly changed Coconnas to turn him into a redeemed villain rather than a man who avoided one political plot only to fall victim to a second one. The historical la Mole was not an outsider at court but rather a well-known courtier.
But if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, it won’t come as a surprise that the facts and the story you saw were quite different things, will it?
My previous post on Queen Margot(1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles) dealt with the film’s treatment of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572. That event and its lead-up takes about a third of the film; the remainer of the film focuses on the fall-out from that event in the lives of Margaret of Valois, the titular Margot, who is by virtue of marriage now queen of Navarre (Isabelle Adjani), her imperiled husband Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), her lover Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez), and the barely stable King Charles IX (John-Hugues Anglade).
The film opens in 1572, a few days before the Massacre. It closes shortly after Charles’ death and the accession of his brother Henry of Anjou in 1574, so roughly two years pass, although the film gives us few markers for the passage of time except for the death of the king. In between these two solidly historical events, the film essentially descends into romantic political fantasy, as far as I can tell.
The massacre of the Huguenots was a huge blow to the Protestant community in France, which lost tens of thousands of adherents and their leaders to slaughter, flight from France, and fear-driven conversion to Catholicism. The film, however, has only a nominal interest in this issue; it is interested in the Massacre primarily because of the dramatic tensions it creates for its main characters. The ensuing political intrigues revolve not around the Huguenot response to so much death, but rather on the complex web of emotions spawned by the crisis. In the film, Navarre converts to Catholicism the day after the Massacre, because he is essentially held hostage at court and needs to find a way to escape. In reality, he promised to convert, but did not actually undergo a formal confirmation at a Catholic; like Elizabeth Tudor during the reign of her Catholic sister Mary I, he used the period of religious instruction to play for time.
Henry of Navarre
In the film, his conversion opens the door to a growing friendship between Navarre and Charles. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), Charles’ mother, quickly realizes that Navarre is beginning to step into the void Coligny’s death has left for Charles; she orchestrated the failed assassination of the Admiral in order to retain her hold on political power, and now that hold is in danger once again. So she immediately plots to murder Henry. At the same time, Navarre is trying to find a way to escape from the court, while la Mole plots to find a way to rescue Margot. But neither can escape without the other; to do so would leave the other in terrible danger and Navarre feels he owes Margot his life, so he is reluctant to abandon her even though he knows she is in love with la Mole. So the tension in the later portions of the film grows from the question of whether the Catholic assassins will manage to kill Navarre before he and Margot can both get away from Paris.
Marguerite of Valois, about the time of her marriage
In true 19th century literary fashion, the court is aswirl with plots, poisons, and adultery. Catherine first tries to murder Henry by giving a tube of poisoned lipstick to his mistress, and when that fails, she arranges to lace a book with arsenic. Rumors of political assassination by poison were incredibly common in ancient, medieval and early modern writings, and virtually any political figure who died unexpectedly was rumored to have been poisoned.
But as a historian, I tend to be very suspicious of any claim that a historical figure died from poison. Prior to the 19th century, the poor state of medical knowledge meant that many potentially fatal medical conditions could go undiagnosed and untreated for years. People could have fatal heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms, and the like with no noticable warning signs. The lack of modern hygiene techniques and the poor state of food preservation meant that food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses were probably far more common than people realized. As a result, there were numerous ways that apparently healthy people might suddenly fall ill and die without being poisoned, and many of those deaths could easily be mistaken for poisoning. That’s not to say that poisoning did not happen, only that we ought to be extremely cautious about attributing unexpected death to poison.
In the film, after the Massacre, there are essentially three key incidents: the attempt to murder Henry with poisoned lipstick, the hunting accident where Henry saves Charles’ life at the cost of giving up a chance to escape the kingdom, and the attempt to poison Henry with an arsenic-laced book.
The first incident revolves around Henry’s mistress, Charlotte de Sauve (Asia Argento), who is given a tube of poisoned lipstick and told that it contains a powerful aphrodisiac. Margot, suspecting a plot, stops Henry from kissing Charlotte, who unfortunately dies a horrible death. Charlotte was in fact Henry’s mistress, but she did not die in 1573 or 74; she remained his mistress until 1579, long after he had left the French court, and she only died in 1617, seven years after he had died. She was, in fact, one of Catherine de Medici’s informants, so if Catherine had wanted to poison Henry, she could just have given Charlotte something to slip into his drink. So the poisoned lipstick and Charlotte’s untimely death are entirely Dumas’ invention.
Charlotte de Sauve
Similarly, as far as I can tell, the hunting accident in which Henry saves Charles from a wild boar also appears to be complete fiction. Charles did enjoy hunting, however, and by the end of his life he and Henry appear to have become good friends (or at least Charles thought they were good friends). In the film, right after the accident, Charles takes Henry to meet his secret mistress, who seems to be a common servant, and infant son. Charles did in fact have a mistress on whom he fathered an illegitimate son, but she seems to have been known at court, and after his death, she received a pension and her son was raised well and allowed to inherit some of Catherine de Medici’s property and a noble title.
What Killed Charles IX?
The third major incident involves Catherine’s attempt to poison Henry using a book on hunting that has been impregnated with arsenic. The pages are stuck together and to unstuck them, the reader must lick his finger and loosen the page; as a result, as the reader works his way through the book, he will inevitably consume a lot of arsenic. Unfortunately, before Henry sees the book, Charles finds it and reads it. so Catherine unintentionally poisons her own son. In the film, Charles lingers for a remarkably long time, constantly exuding a bloody sweat that makes for a ghastly cinematic image, especially because he and Margot wear a lot of white clothes during this part of the film precisely so Charles can bleed on them.
Charles getting blood all over his nice white clothes
The reality of Charles’ death is rather different. Bloody sweat is a real condition, known as hematohidrosis or hematidrosis, but it’s extremely rare and its causes are unknown. It’s not generally fatal, except in newborns. So it’s wildly unlikely that Charles could have died from such a condition, even if there was clear evidence that he had it. But there isn’t any solid evidence that bloody sweat was a symptom of his death.
We have two narratives of Charles’ death, which you can read here. In the first, Charles spends a long time silent and then sends for Henry of Navarre, with whom he has a substantial conversation. Then he dies some time later. In the second, he experiences pain and sweats a great deal, groans, and has a conversation with his nurse during which he cries a lot. Then he apparently dies. The two narratives are not completely compatible, since the first makes no mention of the conversation with his nurse and the second makes no mention of his conversation with Navarre, but it is not impossible that they could both be true; usually scholars read the second account as happening earlier in the evening than the first account. But neither makes any mention of bloody sweat or indeed blood at all, although in the second narrative Charles laments the shedding of Huguenot blood.
The idea that he died of a bloody sweat is probably a Huguenot story meant to convey divine justice; the monarch who shed so much blood died oozing his own blood as a manifestation of his guilt. There is a long tradition in Western historical writing of monarchs who did awful things supposedly dying in horrible ways. These stories nearly always revolve around the idea that the ruler’s moral corruption somehow becomes physically manifest at the end of his life. For example, William I of England (often called William the Bastard) was badly injured during siege in which his troops burned a church; his horse shifted and threw him against the pommel of his saddle. He died not long thereafter, but according to a monastic chronicle, when his body was placed into his sarcophagus, it burst open and produced such an awful stench that the funeral service had to be hurriedly finished so everyone could flee the smell. While it is not completely impossible that William might have ruptured an internal organ and died of a severe infection that would produce a terrible odor, it’s just as likely that the chronicler in question is trying to demonstrate William’s moral decay with a story about literal rot and stench.
Additionally, Charles’ symptoms do not match those of arsenic poisoning. The classic symptoms of arsenic poisoning include headaches, confusion, diarrhea, sleepiness, convulsions, discoloration of the fingernails, vomiting, bloody urine, hair loss, and stomach pains. Bloody sweat is not one of the symptoms. In the film, Charles experiences several abdominal pain, and possibly confusion (a general issue for him) and hair loss (his hair looks quite thin at the end), but none of the messier and less glamorous symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or bloody urine.
In reality, most historians attribute his death to pulmonary tuberculosis, the symptoms of which include severe coughing, coughing up blood or bloody mucus, chest pain, weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats and chills, and loss of appetite. It’s clear he was producing blood; shortly before his death he had a violent hemorrhage and after his death, one Catholic bishop claimed that the amount of blood he produced was a sign he was a saint. But he seems to have been coughing it up, rather than sweating it. His other symptoms included bursts of manic energy, general weakness and fatigue, heavy sweating, severe weight loss (the English ambassador described him as being “no more than skin and bone”) and pain. Additionally, his brother Henry III also died of a form of tuberculosis, so his family may have been particularly susceptible to it for some reason. Tuberculosis is not a slam dunk diagnosis, but it certainly fits the symptoms more closely than arsenic poisoning.
But Dumas is at least drawing off of 16th century claims that Charles had died of bloody sweat, and his plot uses this story to good effect, dramatizing his moral complicity in the massacre and working in the irony that Catherine, who is trying to murder Henry to maintain her position with her son, instead murders her son and enables Henry to escape the court. It may not be good history, but it’s certainly a good story.
If you’re inclined to learn more about Henry of Navarre’s rather eventful life, the only thing readily available is Desmond Seward’s The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France & Navarre. Seward is a popular historian rather than a scholar, but his work is highly readable.
One of the most infamous events in all of French history is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, during which French Catholics, with apparent royal backing, slaughtered thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants) in the streets of Paris. That horrible event is at the center of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Reine Margot (published in 1845), which was adapted for the screen as Queen Margot (1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles).
The Massacre as It Happened
When the French king Henry II died in 1559, he left behind four minor sons and a widow, Catherine de Medici, who acted as regent. It was Catherine’s tragedy to watch three of her sons become king and die without heirs. Francis II died at age 16 after reigning only one year, and was succeeded by Charles IX, his ten year brother, who reigned for 14 years but died without a legitimate son in 1574. He was succeeded by his brother, the probably homosexual Henry of Anjou, who ruled as Henry III until his death in 1589, likewise dying without heirs.
Charles has often been depicted as a weak king, but that may be unfair. He took direct control of the kingdom when he was 13, but looked to his mother for guidance his entire reign, which makes sense given that by the end of it, he was still only 24.
And Charles was ruling during a period of extreme political tensions. France was torn by the Protestant Reformations, divided into hard-core Catholics and Huguenots, who were followers of Jean Calvin. The Catholics were led by the House of Guise, while the Huguenots were led by the House of Bourbon. In between was a faction known as the Politiques, who were Catholics and Protestants who wanted to find a way for the two rival faiths to co-exist peacefully. Members of both factions sat on the Royal Council, and Charles and his mother had to find a way to navigate the competing demands of these two groups. As Catholics, they naturally sympathized with the House of Guise, but they did not want to make the Guises politically dominant by relying on them too much, and so Charles entrusted a good deal of power to Gaspard de Coligny, the Admiral of France and leader of the Huguenots. And to keep Coligny from growing too powerful, Charles and Catherine relied heavily on Henry of Anjou, Charles’ younger brother, as a counterbalance.
Catherine de Medici
Sadly, Charles’ reign was marred by a series of civil wars, conspiracies, and political assassinations. Coligny took over as Huguenot leader after the murder of Louis, Prince of Condé, while Duke Henry of Guise loathed Coligny for orchestrating the murder of his father. Catherine was rumored to have poisoned Jeanne of Navarre, mother of the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, with a pair of poisoned gloves. Both Francis II and Charles IX had been the target of Huguenot kidnapping plots, and at one point, the Guises had orchestrated a slaughter of Huguenots during a worship service. Coligny narrowly survived an assassination plot.
When the Third War of Religion was brought to an end with the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which Charles and Catherine seem to have arranged in good faith, it made sense to try to bring the two warring factions together with a marriage. The proposal was to marry the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre to Charles’ sister Marguerite. The Treaty granted Huguenots freedom of conscience and the right to worship everywhere across France, so a mixed-religion marriage would act as a reasonable symbol of that treaty. So on April 18, 1572, with large numbers of Huguenots visiting the Catholic stronghold of Paris, Henry and Marguerite were married.
Henry of Navarre
Unfortunately the marriage was ill-conceived. Charles and Catherine were trying to walk a tight-rope between angry Catholics and suspicious Huguenots. There were enormous amounts of bad blood and mistrust on both sides. (Imagine trying to end World War II by marrying one of FDR’s daughters to Adolf Hitler. That’s how much Catholics and Huguenots disliked each other.) Catholics were appalled that Charles would re-admit Coligny to the Royal Council when the Admiral had just been fighting him a few weeks before. European society had not yet developed the notion that Protestants and Catholics could live together; both sides insisted that the other side was wrong, was going to Hell, and did not deserve political or civil rights because they were religiously in error. Additionally, many Huguenots had begun to reject the idea of monarchy entirely and had called for the overthrow of the monarchy or at least the ruling family. On the other side, the Catholic bishop Simon Vigor had been calling for the deaths of Huguenots from Paris pulpits for some time. So the Parisian population was deeply unhappy to suddenly be hosting literally thousands of Huguenots in their midst for the wedding.
Henry and Marguerite
And then, four days later, someone shot Coligny, seriously wounding him. The identity of the assassin is known, but historians have never been able to definitively prove who was behind the assassination attempt. Many have speculated that Catherine was afraid that Coligny’s rising influence over her son would mean the end of her political power, but the most likely suspect was one of the Guises; the assassin was a client of the Guises and had taken his shot from the window of a house owned by them; Charles certainly thought they were the guilty party. Coligny survived the attempt on his life, but it ratcheted up the tensions in the city enormously.
Two nights later, the municipal government of Paris was ordered to shut the gates of the city and arm the citizenry, and in the early hours of St. Bartholemew’s Day, the bells of Saint-Germain rang out. The palace guard of the Louvre forced the visiting Huguenot nobles to leave the palace. Henry of Guise forced his way into Coligny’s house with a band of men, dragged him from his bed, killed him, and threw his corpse out the window. That was the trigger for an orgy of violence that lasted three days. Although the target of the violence seems to have initially been the Huguenot nobility, the general population of the city soon turned their wrath on their commoner Huguenot neighbors, slaughtering men, women, and children. The bodies were thrown in the Seine.
Francois Dubois’ depiction of the Massacre; note Coligny’s body hanging out a window in the background
Marguerite reportedly saved Navarre and a cousin of his by sheltering them in her bedroom and refusing to allow anyone in. Afterwards, he feigned willingness to convert to Catholicism until he was able to get away from Paris, at which point he renounced the notion of a conversion. (Decades later he would actually convert in order to inherit the French crown. Paris, he is reported to have said, “is worth a mass.”)
As the violence spread the following day, Charles frantically tried to stop the killing, to no avail. He sent letters out across the kingdom in an effort to stop the violence from spreading, but as word of the killing spread, at least a dozen French cities experienced their own massacres.
Exactly how many died in the massacre is unknown. Estimates range from 2,000 to 70,000, but the figures generally used today put the deaths in Paris in the 2-3,000 range and nationally in the 7-10,000 range.
The massacre was a profound blow to the Huguenots. They had lost many of their most prominent leaders in the slaughter, and tens of thousands of them had converted to Catholicism out of fear. Many fled the country entirely. Protestant countries were appalled at the carnage, and the Massacre became a rallying cry for opposition to Catholicism across the Protestant world. Pope Gregory XIII was so overjoyed that he ordered a special mass of thanksgiving, sent Charles a golden rose, and issued a commemorative medal. He also commissioned a trio of murals that are still in the Vatican today.
Giorgio Vasari’s depiction of the Massacre; note Coligny’s body falling out a window
Who Ordered the Massacre?
While it’s easy to guess the basic reason the Massacre happened, there’s been a good deal of argument over who ordered it. Well into the 19th century, blame for the Massacre was usually placed on the shoulders of Catherine. She was widely viewed as a domineering schemer who completely controlled her weak-willed son. The wedding was sometimes viewed as a plot to lure the Huguenots into Paris so that they could be slaughtered. In this view, Catherine was vicious, power-hungry, and ruthlessly determined to impose Catholicism. According to a letter attributed to Henry of Anjou, when Catherine finally forced Charles to accept the killing of the Huguenot leadership, he said that if they were going to kill the leaders, it was necessary to kill all the Huguenots, so that he would not have to listen to them accusing him of the crime.
Henry of Anjou, the future Henry III
Early modern historians tended to take a very negative view of women exercising political power. While Queen Elizabeth I of England (a younger contemporary of Catherine) was able to win the admiration of scholars, they were more likely to point to women as unacceptably ambitious and ruthless, the way Catherine was, or as overly sexual and swayed by bad men, as Mary of Scotland was. The notion that female rulers were simply trying to govern while having to overcome obstacles arising from their gender was rarely considered. Instead, their failings were viewed as evidence the women ought not to be involved in politics.
However, that letter of Anjou’s was proven to be a fake in the mid-19th century, and since the collapse of the ‘Evil Catherine’ scenario, alternative views have been put forward. Charles has been accused of orchestrating the killing out of fear that the Huguenots were planning to overthrow him after the attack on Coligny. In favor of this claim is the fact that when Charles sought to end the killing, he issued a decree that said he had taken action to prevent a Protestant plot.
Robert Knecht has argued that the failed attempt on Coligny’s life threw the royal court into a panic. Charles and his council concluded that a Fourth War of Religion was inevitable and decided that the best option was to kill all the Huguenot leaders right away in an attempt to avert the war by killing those who would be leading it. There were 4,000 Huguenots soldiers sleeping outside the city, so if violence broke out, the Huguenots might be able to seize control of Paris. Again, that fits with the royal decree Charles issued. But it doesn’t explain why Catherine initially denounced the killings.
However, a recent theory put forward by Thierry Wanegffelen offers a more complex explanation of the events, especially when combined with Knecht’s views. As Wanegffelen sees it, Catherine and Charles opposed taking any action against the Huguenots after the attempt on Coligny’s life. However, Anjou saw this as an opportunity to advance his power and made an arrangement with Henry of Guise to orchestrate the killings of the Huguenot leadership. Wanegffelen points out that during the slaughter, Anjou’s men claimed to be acting under his authority, not the king’s. Catherine initially denounced the killings, but then realized that she was in danger of ruining Anjou, whose support she needed against Guise. So then Charles took credit for the killings as a way to cover up his brother’s role in it. However, after things had settled down somewhat, Catherine worried that Henry was becoming too powerful and found various ways to get him out of Paris.
Duke Henry I of Guise
This explains the start of the Massacre, but does not explain why it grew so large and resisted Charles’ efforts to stop it. To explain that, we have to turn to the religious tensions and the systematic efforts to demonize the Huguenots made by men like Bishop Vigor. It has also been suggested that there may have been an economic dimension to the killing; the Huguenots tended to be somewhat wealthier craftsmen than the average resident of the city.
The Massacre in the Film
The film opens with the wedding of Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) and Margot, as she’s called in the film (Isabelle Adjani); Margot is so reluctant to marry a Huguenot that when she is asked during the ritual if she marries him, she hesitates so long that Charles gives her a violent shove.
Isabelle Adjani as the reluctant bride Margot
The wedding celebrations that follow play like a very tension-packed episode of Reign, with lots of flirting between young men and women and open discussion of the various affairs the nobles are having. Margot’s lover is Henry of Guise (Miguel Bosé), and she vastly prefers him over her new Protestant husband, so much so that she tells Navarre not to come to her room on her wedding night. When Navarre show up anyway, he tells her that he needs her as his ally, because he knows he is among enemies. She reluctantly agrees that she will not be his enemy, but she will not sleep with him. Instead, she and her handmaiden, Duchess Henriette of Nevers (Dominique Blanc) sneak out into the streets of Paris to find a lover for her. She finds Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez), a Huguenot who bumps uglies with her in an alleyway.
Given that the novel was written in the 19th century, it is not surprising that it adopts a fairly old-fashioned view of who caused the Massacre. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi, with a wonderfully high plucked forehead) is a veritable gorgon, totally dominating her weak son Charles IX (Jean-Hughes Anglade), who is played as virtually insane in his emotional instability. (Given how fiercely he chews scenery when he’s onscreen, it’s a wonder there aren’t holes in the walls.) Catherine has a vaguely incestuous relationship with Henry of Anjou (Pascal Greggory), which is unlikely, given Henry’s strong penchant for young men. Both Charles and Anjou are styled with long, stringy hair (totally wrong for the fashions of the day) and sickly pallors, as if to suggest that Catherine has infected her sons with her malice. Henry of Guise at one point accuses Margot of having had sex with one of her brothers.
Lisi and Greggory as Catherine and Henry of Anjou
Perhaps it plays better in Dumas’ book, but in the film, Catherine’s schemes are malevolent but somewhat ill-formed. Rather than having an overarching plan, she lurches from evil scheme to evil scheme as if she’s making it up moment by moment. She insists that she wants peace with the Huguenots, but she also wants Coligny (Jean-Claude Brialy) dead because she realizes that Charles is coming to see Coligny as a father figure and that means she will lose power. So she is behind the assassination attempt against him, having apparently not stopped to consider the impact killing Coligny would have on prospects for peace.
When it becomes clear that Coligny has survived and the Huguenots are on the verge of rioting, Catherine and Anjou browbeat Charles into authorizing the massacre, forgetting that peace was the original goal. Charles remarks that if they are going to kill the leaders, they must kill them all, so that he will not have to listen to their accusations; the suggestion is that he fears he will hear voices.
Anglade’s pathetic Charles
So Guise, acting as much out of sexual rivalry with Navarre as anything else, goes out to find men willing to do the dirty work. One of the villains he recruits is Coconnas (Claudio Amendola). When the bells finally ring, Guise, Anjou and Coconnas run rampant.
The Massacre sequence is a tour de force of panic, chaos, and violence. Whereas in reality, the Louvre was not the site of the killing, in the film, the killing starts there and spirals outward. Huguenots are lined up against the walls and bayoneted, women have their throats slit, and young nobles are dragged to their doom begging for mercy. Confusion reigns as the bewildered Margot runs through the halls, trying to understand what’s happening. It’s a shockingly effective sequence; I first saw this film 20 years ago, and the massacre sequence has always stayed with me.
Here’s the first part of it. Warning: it’s quite bloody.
Then the killing spreads to the streets and soon corpses are lying everywhere. Coconnas seems to revel in the chance to slaughter Huguenots, and Henriette seems almost psychotically amused by the spectacle. Guise bursts into Coligny’s room and throws him from the window still alive (another inaccuracy, because Coligny’s killing seems to have started the violence).
The results of the massacre
Coconnas bursts into la Mole’s bedroom, but la Mole wounds him and flees through a window across the rooftop. As he searches for a safe haven amidst the violence, Coconnas doggedly pursues him, wounding him twice. Eventually, by wild coincidence, la Mole staggers into Margot’s chambers. Recognizing him, she intervenes when Coconnas tries to enter, telling him that at Judgment Day he will be asked to account for his murders and telling him that he will have to kill her to get to his target. Later, however, la Mole staggers back into the street, where he and Coconnas slowly bludgeon each other into unconsciousness and are mistaken for corpses to be carted off.
Margot learns that Navarre has been taken to the king’s chamber, where she finds him a captive, being browbeaten until he agrees to convert, which he does the next day. Again, this distorts the facts, since Margot is said to have protected him (not la Mole) and Navarre did not actually make a public conversion but only promised to.
Auteuil as Henry of Navarre
Overall, the film’s depiction draws heavily on 19th century notions of the event both in terms of who is behind it, what their motives were, and who was doing the killing. Modern historical explanations have tended to emphasize the complexity of the politics over the personalities of Catherine and her sons and have found sociological explanations for why the Massacre grew so out of control. There’s no sense that the general population of Paris were complicit in the killings, or that the violence lasted for three days. The killings seem over by sunrise.
This fits with 19th century notions of history as being primarily driven by Great Men and Bad Women. If historical events are dictated by individuals in positions of power, then it stands to reason that personal motives such as lust for power, insanity, and sibling resentments are primary historical forces. Thanks in no small part to the historical theories of Karl Marx and his followers, historians now tend to accord a much larger role to the widespread sentiments of the general population and are somewhat less inclined to view personality as the basic explanation for everything. But, as I noted, the source material for the film is 19th century, and bringing the film more in line with contemporary historical analysis would probably have changed Dumas’s plot too much.
The film also tends to demonize the Catholics. Although it makes clear that the Huguenots are just as intransigent as their opponents, the film makes no mention of their more ruthless actions, apart from the killing of Guise’ father. Nor does it show any interest in the theological issues of the day; it is enough to say that the Catholics hate the Huguenots and are willing to slaughter them. In fairness though, it’s probably hard to offer an even-handed treatment of the slaughter of thousands of innocent people.