Queen’s Choice: Catherine de Medici



Who was she? Italian-born French queen, regent and mother of three kings of France, a powerful influence in 16th century France, particularly during the Wars of Religion. She at first adopted a conciliatory policy towards the Huguenots (French Protestants), but in 1562 civil war broke out, marking the beginning of the series of conflicts which became known as the French Wars of Religion. Her name was Medici. Catherine de’ Medici.

La Reine Margot is a 1994 French period film directed by Patrice Chéreau, based on the 1845 historical novel La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas. In it, Catholics and Protestant Huguenots are fighting over political control of France, ruled by the neurotic, hypochondriac King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici (Virna Lisi), a scheming power player.

Catherine decides to make an overture of goodwill by offering up her unloved daughter Margot (Isabelle Adjani) in marriage to Henri de Bourbon (Daniel Auteuil), a prominent Huguenot and the King of Navarre. This pleases no one except the Queen Mother. Marguerite’s brothers, who nicknamed her Margot and prize her with a love that borders on incest, are outraged. Although Margot is excluded from the throne by the Salic Law, her marriage to a Protestant prince offers a chance for domestic reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants.

Catherine: “The Protestants believe you betrayed them. They can’t understand. What is betrayal but one’s skill in following the flow of events?”

Catherine schemes to bring on the notorious St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, assassinating many of the most wealthy, prominent Huguenots who were in the largely-Catholic city of Paris to escort the prince to his wedding. The Massacre begins four days after the marital ceremony and thousands of Protestants are slaughtered, including the Huguenot leader, Coligny. The marriage goes ahead but Margot, who does not love Henri, begins a passionate affair with a soldier La Môle (Vincent Pérez), also a Protestant from a well-to-do family.

Charles IX: “One who gives life is no longer a mother once she takes that life back.”

Murders by poisoning follow, as court intrigues multiply and Catherine’s villainous plotting to place her son the Duke of Anjou (Pascal Greggory) on the throne threatens the lives of La Môle, Margot and Henri of Navarre. A book with pages painted with arsenic is intended for Henri… but not all things work out as planned…

In La Reine Margot the evil and scheming Catherine de’ Medici is played by an Italian born actress Virna Lisi. She once said: “The problem was, Catherine was ugly. I have to admit, I had to make an effort, I had to adapt, to look ugly, to age, in order to create this personality. Women in the 16th century behaved differently; today I run around in pants,” she added. “She was bald, so we had this extraordinary device by a German to raise the hairline. I wore a kind of corset and went slightly bent. Catherine had to move heavily. I’m a dynamic, quick person. The costuming had to help do this.”

As Catherine, Miss Lisi beguiled the critics, who gave her the best actress award at the Cannes festival. With her “shockingly witchy appearance and evil mannerisms,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “Catherine is indeed someone to be reckoned with.”

There are some tender moments in Miss Lisi’s portrayal, like Catherine’s solitary sobbing in a castle keep, but, she said, they fell to the cutting room floor.

Callisto Cosulich, an Italian critic, says Hollywood never remade Miss Lisi; she was typecast before American film makers discovered her. “At the moment, she’s a well-regarded actress,” he says. “In the 1950’s, she was seen for her face, her beauty, but perhaps less as an actress. Yet she was never a woman who broke the rules.” Really the role of Medici required a certain inner courage.

Mr. Cosulich contrasts Miss Lisi’s career with that of Gina Lollobrigida, who found it harder to crack the mold. “She, on the other hand, is having a second phase,” he says of Miss Lisi.

As Lisi said about herself “But you know, they would say, “Lisi’s beautiful.” And I would add, “Yes, but she’s also an actress.”

And all her acting talent was culminated in the role of a lifetime with the film, La Reine Margot by Patrice Chéreau, and perhaps in her best role, a marvelously malevolent Caterina de’ Medici. Lisi in the image of Caterina captured both the César and Cannes Film Festival awards, not to mention the Italian Silver Ribbon award.

The historical Medici continued to play a central role in politics after the events of the film and made further fruitless attempts to reconcile the opposing sides in the ongoing civil war. Catherine died on 5 January 1589 and was buried next to her husband in the church of St Denis in Paris. ♥


Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is a philologist specializing in Ancient Russian drama and theatre. She’s also a film and television critic by calling and librarian by profession. You can find her essays on her Facebook page and on Lumiere. She also blogs in English and Russian.


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