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La Reine Margot. Part I: A place calling itself France

Any costume designer needs to take into account certain key elements when tackling a movie; when does it happen? Where does it happen? To whom does it happen?

La Reine Margot is a 1994's movie directed by Patrice Chérau (best known for his work as a theater director) and it's a French adaptation of one of Alexandre Dumas' most iconic novels. The resulting piece is a highly confrontational take on Dumas' story. It's harsh in its imaginary and uncompromising in it's interpretation. And all in all, strangely faithful to its source material; both thematically and in tone.

"Paris est un cimentière"
  - Margot-

The movie was awarded third-place Jury
Prize at the 1994's Cannes Film Festival,
and is one of the most critically acclaimed
Dumas' adaptations.

The costumes for the movie were done by the German-born designer: Moidele Bickel and this movie earned her an Academy Award nomination for Costume Designs. Her work has basically been centered in the European industry, having worked in movies like Germinal (1993, Claude Berri) and Das weisse band (The white ribbon, 2009, Michael Haneke).

But, what makes this movie, and its designs, so memorable is how they decided to answer those key questions.

WHEN, WHERE, TO WHOM
During the late 16th century, Catholics and Protestant Huguenots are fighting over political control of France, which is ruled by the neurotic, hypochondriac King Charles IX, and his mother, Catherine de' Medici, a scheming power player. Catherine decides to make an overture of goodwill by offering up her daughter Margot in marriage to Henri de Bourbon, a prominent Huguenot and King of Navarre. The movie focuses on the chain of events set up in motion by this wedding.

PLAYING LOOSE WITH THE PERIOD

This adaptation is a very operatic take on the novel and it feeds of the French theater tradition much more than it does of the Hollywood tradition. It's a movie that relishes chaos and thrives on it, it's passionate, it's gory and, most importantly for this section, it's oddly anachronistic.

But its not inaccurate or anachronistic for the sake of being such. At no point did I get the feel that they were catering to modern fashion, but still the designs are not based on 16th century France (see this article for more 16th century accuracy). That's because Bickel decided to base all of her designs in specific artists from different periods and different places, disregarding the set period for the story almost completely.

So the "when" stops being exclusively the 16th century, and the "where" stops being exclusively France.

A MYRIAD OF INFLUENCES

One of the clearest influences in the design are the paintings of Francisco de Zurbaran, a 17th century Spanish painter. And, especially, his Saint's Series.

St. Casilda (ca. 1630)
St. Elizabeth of Portugal (ca. 1638)

Look at those deep reds, the odd shapes (this was not the contemporary fashion, the dresses are quite made up) and the hairstyles (again, not sporting the 1630's hair fashion).


Look at the colors, it's practically the same palette that Zurbaran uses: deep reds, yellows, ochres and greens. And the shapes are all over the place, not sticking to any historical fashion; just like the ones painted by Zurbaran.

Another influence is found in the Baroque's French painter Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), best known for his work with chiaroscuro scenes with candlelight (a clear referent as well for the cinematography of the movie).

Maria Magdalena
St Sebastien Attended by St Irene (1650)

Again, we find red as a key element in the De La Tour's paintings. But the most important influence is found in the dresses themselves; their shape and general structure. Look at St Irene's dress and then at this Margot design:


The structure is oddly similar: the shape of the corset, the undershirt... It's not identical, but you can definitely see where the original inspiration came from.

But for the protestant characters, the inspiration came, logically, from a Dutch protestant painter: the Dutch master, Rembrandt himself (1606-1669).


Except the hats (which are too clearly identifiable to a specific century), the designs for the protestants are very much grounded on Rembrandt's work.


The last influence to this eclectic cocktail is the Italian mannerist painter of the Florentine School: Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1557).



The influence is clear in the design of the catholic guards; both combining red and ochres to stunning effect.


The design, especially the color palette, closely resembles Pontormo's painting of a Halberdier (right above). But you can see Pontormo's influence in another design.


The combination of green and red (although inverted) is very reminiscent of the Italian's painter work (paining left above). Even the shape of the overcoat is similar to the shape of the doublet drawn by Pontormo.

PAINTING A STORY

But, why use such an eclectic mix of influences? Why disregard the period at all? It might seem odd, but this strange combination gives a very unique feeling to the movie. In a way that doesn't feel like a 16th century piece, but neither it feels like a contemporary piece or a fantasy piece. Which is good, because it's not supposed to feel like any of those.

The designs are taking elements from every historical and pictorial fashion and none at the same time. It borrows from Spanish, French, Dutch and Italian pictorial references, creating an alien entity that is all and none of these sources at the same time.

This helps build a fictional world; a pictorial world. The same way Dumas' book adapted history to fit fiction, Chérau's movie adapts history to fit art. It takes the story out of the 16th century context and brings it to a pictorial context; as if it took place in one giant canvas where the painter's brush is exchanged by the cinematographer's lens.

The movie aims to talk about humanity and its nature, not humanity in the 16th century; hate, fanaticism, intolerance, wars of Religion, family dynamics, rotten political systems, passion, radicalism, a system that refuses to die out, a woman trying to reclaim herself from the world that uses her.... these are not themes exclusively relevant to the 16th century. These are themes still relevant to our world.

There still is blood being shed over fanaticism and intolerance. The Wars of Religion are as relevant now as they were back then, if not more so. Our political system seems to be rotten at all levels and it still refuses to die. And to this day, many women are still trying to reclaim their identities for themselves in a world that seems set on keeping them at certain roles by forcing a clear identity on them. It's not about the spirit of a century, but the spirit of humanity.

Dumas' novel talks as much about ourselves as it talks about the end of the Valois' dynasty.

"Welcome to the family Henri; it's a bit peculiar but not that bad"

And so, the visual designs for this movie chose to cast away the codes of a period piece and work on a pictorial and symbolic level. Every single costume design is done with a keen eye for beauty and pictorial sensibilities, creating a world that, though it never existed as shown, it still feels real and grounded.

All these help accentuate the reading of the story as atemporal. It's a universal tragedy that borrows more from the codes of a Shakespeare tragedy than a period drama. Chérau's Queen Margot takes place everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Just like Shakespeare's Coriolanus played out in "a place calling itself Rome", not in Rome itself, Chérau's work unfolds itself, not in France, but in A PLACE CALLING ITSELF FRANCE.


To read Part II, click here.

Comments

  1. Excellent commentary and leads me to read script if I can find it online. atk

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