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Jennifer Smith

Further information

About the author

Jenny Smith is currently writing her doctoral thesis, 'Replacing female voices: the twelfth century Iyric of the trobairitz' in the Department of History at the University of Western Australia. She is a founding member of the editorial collective of Limina: a journal of historical and cultural studies.

Publication details

Volume 2, November 1996

Representing Women's Pasts:
La Reine Margot and the Problem of "Historical" Film

"Show them my mark, Margot, show them my mark... "

As the Duke of Anjou prepares for his departure to govern Poland at the whim of his brother, the King of France, he makes a last bid at asserting his power in the French court. He will rape his sister before the court, and force her to show the visible signs of his previous conquest of her body.

In this most confronting scene, the significance of Margot, and of her body in particular, is spelled out most clearly. For her three brothers, vying for a position of supreme power, Margot's body is the possession that represents that power. In the film's presentation of this narrative of power struggle, Margot's body is the screen on which is played out the sickness emblematic of this dreadful period in French history.

As an "historical" film focusing on the life of one woman in sixteenth-century France, La Reine Margot raises important questions about how we, in the twentieth century, view history and the representation of women. Whether or not La Reine Margot can truly be labelled an "historical" film is of course questionable. As a late twentieth-century film of a mid-nineteenth century novel depicting a sixteenth-century event, the various filters of ideology through which the narrative at the base of the text has flowed are bound to have effected the presentation of the events which form the "facts" of the history. There is, however, something rather special about the genre of historical film in the late twentieth century that works to efface any presence of the way in which the story has been variously crafted, leaving us with, what at least looks like, a "true" story.

La Reine Margot presents us with an example of what I see as the insidious nature of "historical" film. The film is enjoyable; it is thrilling, interesting and entertaining, of this I have no doubts. It also, however, operates in a way that denies the possibility of interrogating the assumptions which lie at its base, assumptions which, in the apparent veracity of its picture perfect presentation, masquerade as the "true," but unquestioned, assumptions of the sixteenth-century.

One of the most significant ways in which it does this is in its concentration on the body. This film is intensely corporeal. Power here is a matter of life and death, and is presented as such in all its "true" gruesome detail. Characters move through the film not so much as individuals, by which I imply all of our modern understandings of the individual, but as bodies which display the workings of power, and which represent the effects of that, so often malignant, power. This presentation is a curious intersection of what seems to be a modern desire to view history as profoundly different and distant, that is to set up an historical other for comparison, and yet to make it all astonishingly real, knowable and "true". That is, to view the sixteenth-century as distant and barbaric, but to comprehend completely this barbarity, and to know it in our own terms. The film sets up systems of meaning around the various bodies it displays, through which, it would appear, we can understand the narrative on its own sixteenth-century terms.

The late sixteenth-century is laid out for us to view as a time of violence and cruelty. The audience is presented, most particularly during the scene of the massacre itself, with the idea of a time and people so irrational in their beliefs, and so determined in their quest for power, that any sense of humanity is lost as the streets are littered with corpses in a frenzy of bloodshed. The camera dwells significantly on the bodies of the dead being brought to their mass grave, who sprawl from carts, arms splayed, like so many crucifixes, their martyrdom spelt out in their own lifeless bodies. As an audience we can remark on the historical distance (we don't do that any more), and simultaneously know exactly what the deaths meant in their time (these are not just corpses, but martyrs). This curious way of understanding the past leads, I believe, to an intellectualised reaction to the violence presented in the film. The audience can watch the violence (and there is plenty of it), be shocked or appalled, but ultimately, watch it without any qualms as to why. The answer is simple. This is "true". There is no need for film-makers to explain their presentation of such violence (it really happened that way). Nor, for the same reason, do audiences experience any kind of uncertainty as to the propriety of being entertained by violence.

This point about violence is nothing new, indeed historical films have been criticised in the past for their presentation of violence and film-makers have acceptably cried "truth" in their defence. What is seldom critiqued however, is the presentation of women and gender in such films. La Reine Margot presents a picture of women that, like the picture of death, is abhorrent, and yet plausible, and thus acceptable.

Margot is not a figure of unified meaning in the film; as I pointed out at the beginning, she is a site of contestation, and thus assumes different meanings dependent on who seeks to control her and for what purpose. Margot's position as a woman is constantly brought into question by reference to the religious turmoil of the day. Her ambiguous position is set from the very first scene of the film, where the mention of Margot as a "shameful whore" comes hot on the heels of an argument between Catholic and Protestant over the Protestant construction of the Virgin Mary as a "normal woman." Throughout the film, Margot oscillates between traditional types of woman, as Eve or Mary, as woman consumed by lust or redemptive saviour, which finally culminates with the representation of Margot as a vision in white at her brother's deathbed, who in his final prayer assumes a position between the Virgin and God.

Whatever she represents to various characters however, it is clear that Margot is always a sexual body, though the meaning of her sexuality is again not unified. For the men in power around her, Margot's body and sexuality are tools to be used for their own advancement. Margot's marriage is the most obvious case in point. As she kneels before the altar, her silent objection to her marriage is overruled as her brother pushes her forward, gesturing from his own body, through hers, to consent to the marriage. Margot does not own her body, nor does she really own her sexuality, as the subsequent events make clear. At the wedding feast she first appears relatively free in her sexuality. She and her lady-in-waiting, Henriette, scrutinise the male guests at the wedding, weighing up the various possibilities. The camera follows their conversation, dwelling on masculine bodies for the audience's perusal. It soon becomes apparent however, that Margot's sexuality is every bit as constrained as was her marriage. Her wedding night is a demonstration again of Margot as the site of political contest. She rejects the sexual advances of her new husband, a condition of the marriage we learn, but does not deny him the faithfulness of a good wife. For this political, rather than sexual, infidelity, she is in turn rejected by her lover Guise, a king's courtier and leader of the Catholics. Her desire for sexual gratification finds her stalking the streets of Paris, masquerading as a prostitute, eventually encountering La Mole, the man with whom she will find "true" love. As a sexual object, Margot represents the turns and tides of political power, and her only avenue to sexual freedom lies in anonymous encounters with those as disempowered as herself.

The construction of Margot in these ways works along lines similar to those of the presentation of the violence done to other bodies in the film. On one level, the audience can "understand" Margot as an abstraction, or even allegorisation, who is understood by her contemporaries in the terms of the time. Through these comprehensible constructions, the audience then perceives the historical "difference" as it were, and can read Margot's objectification and limited agency as sixteenth-century "realities." We can pity Margot from a distance, but can not question her treatment which seems plausible given our understanding of the sixteenth-century. Sad, but "true".

This problem of the "truth" of historical film is at its most insidious, to my mind, when we consider where, or rather at whom, criticism is levelled within the narrative.

Blame for the wars, violence and bloodshed is laid at the feet of the monarchy. Likewise, Margot's ill-treatment is performed by, and even at the command of, her brothers. In terms of what is becoming of the nation, and of Margot, the three sons vying for control of the kingdom appear the most culpable. Or do they?

If Margot's body becomes the site of the power struggle, the body of the king lives out the effects of that struggle. In terms which, again, seem to correlate with our understanding of the sixteenth-century, the king is the country. Charles IX, is sickly and childlike, and his illness and impotence reflect the sorry state of the nation. As Margot's body is the site of conflict, the King's body reflects the effects of that conflict. It is the king, and by association the country, who is injured by the assassination attempts on Henri de Navarre. As Margot is acted upon, the king acts out through his body the sickness of his violent, incestuous, perhaps even evil, family. Again, however, the king is ultimately a reflection, rather than the cause, of his familial/national problems. The cause, I would argue, lies in another body of another woman, that of Catherine de Medici, who is portrayed as the origin of the sickness that pervades both her family and nation.

Catherine is made culpable on two counts: firstly in terms of the current political turmoil; it is she who orchestrates the assassination attempts on Henri. Secondly, she is made culpable as the woman who has brought forth and nurtured, the "bad fruit" as Margot phrases it, that are her children. Catherine is an evil figure, who has produced evil offspring, who have wrought evil on their nation. As an overbearing mother of a monarch, Catherine steps into the dangerous position of a powerful woman. The idea of female misrule has a long tradition in political thought, and was certainly pertinent in the sixteenth-century. Catherine, with her evil machinations, is the embodiment of misplaced and misdirected power. She is the absence of authoritative, legitimate, even divinely inspired, masculine power. It becomes clear, that the most abhorrent aspects of this family, their lust for power and violence, and, perhaps even more disturbing to the modern viewer, tendency for incest, can be traced to their origin in Catherine. Even Catherine herself remarks that their failure to conquer the Protestants lies in the absence of the real king, their father. Our understanding then becomes thus: Catherine, as an evil woman who has usurped the position of the father and controls her childlike son, thus rendering him an ineffectual monarch, has diseased the French monarchy, and by extension the whole of France. Her malignance is a symbol of disorder, and the behaviour of her family its effects. Again, this is all plausible. In our twentieth-century desire for the sixteenth century, this makes sense. We can see the "truth" of Catherine's evil machinations, and understand them in terms of the patriarchal society in which they were performed.

La Reine Margot presents a very neat, cohesive and, if sometimes a bit gory, attractive picture of the sixteenth-century. It fulfils our need for a distant and different past, which we can nonetheless readily comprehend through the graphic presentation of all its magnificence and horror. And we can enjoy the experience.

But what is this in the end? It is a film. It is a product, made for consumption by an audience who will view it, and be freed from the guilt of taking voyeuristic pleasure in violence by the notion of its historicity. It is important to remember therefore, that this is not as "historical" as it appears. It is a late-twentieth-century text. The bodies we see are not sixteenth-century bodies, nor are they particularly "real" bodies. They do not do anything which we would not want to see on screen. They bleed, a lot, but their deaths are aesthetic, and not tainted by any of the more "realistic" effects of arsenical poisoning. Similarly, Isabelle Adjani is our beauty, and our understanding of her situation in the narrative can only be effected through resonances in our own society. This. is what I find so problematic. The historical detail that makes this film look real and feel plausible enough to be "true", is what removes us from further consideration of constructions and treatment of women that are not absent in our own society, and are in fact, through this denial of interrogation, ultimately confirmed. What I can't find, however, is an easy solution. I can only hope that one day the desire for a narrative of "truth" will be overrun by a desire for a narrative of possibilities, or even of emancipation, and that the genre of "historical film" will widen to encompass women's "history" too.


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