Este post foi escrito para a série Hit Me With Your Best Shot do blogue The Film Experience de NathanielR, sendo que é aqui apresentado em inglês, ao invés do que é usual neste blogue.
Let’s talk about costume design and painting, shall we?
One of my favorite Oscar oddities is the strange propensity of the Costume branch to give out nominations to films completely off the Oscar radar. When this nomination is graced upon a foreign language film my joy is redoubled, and one of the prime examples for such an occurrence is this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot subject, Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot, a dramatization of Alexandre Dumas’ homonymous novel about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, where thousands of Huguenots where murdered by Catholics in a wave of mob violence.
I mention the costumes for they were a point of confusion for me the first time I watched the film, many years ago. In that time, I already knew of the massacre and was fascinated by its historical significance, and was obviously eager to watch such a high profile film about it. I was also already greatly interested in costume design and fashion history, and, by consequence, when faced with Chéreau’s film and Moidele Bickel’s costumes I was astonished to see the complete disregard for any sort of historical reality. With its mixture of pseudo Renaissance styles plus a heavy dose of baroque-ish elements, the entire thing is closer to fantasy than period.
Costume wise, history flavored fantasy
You must understand that, when I started to get interested in such things, I was quite limited in my points of view. If a film was ostensibly about history, I expected a level of accuracy and recreation, only in a more loose and fictional narrative would I accept the stylizations that, for example, featured in the world of geniuses like Eiko Ishioka. Though I still believed in such ridiculous binary ideas of historical fidelity in costume design, I was immensely fascinated with Bickel’s work and the strange atmosphere it conjured.
As I previously mentioned, the costumes of La Reine Margot freely mix elements of both Baroque, Renaissance and even fantasy fashion, creating a strange hybrid where, curiously, simplicity and symbolic color are the main elements of visual impact. On a simplistic way, one can justify such choices by pointing out how this film is actually based in a romantic reimagining of the historical events, and it’s therefore expected that the design give it a sexy contemporary feeling. The genius in Bickel’s work though, isn’t in the way she catered her designs and, by consequence, the film’s aesthetic to modern sensibilities, but rather created something that is closer to a Baroque, Catholic Counter Reform style.
A dawn lit, cinematographic Caravaggio
To understand what I’m trying to say, think not of the opulent 17th century churches with altars covered in elaborate golden constructions where the horror of the empty had the consequence of everything being filled with excruciating and dramatic details. Instead, try to picture the paintings of such masters as Caravaggio, Gentileschi and de la Tour, where the carnal, the violent and the shadowy darkness were presented hand-in-hand with Catholic spirituality. Images of striking lighting contrasts, where the sacred seemed to exist in constant communion with the profane, almost feeding from it to gain obscene power and influence.
A dark and ominously bloody version of the catholic imagetic of the Virgin Mary
That same relationship of sacred and profane imagery permeates through La Reine Margot and its costumes, which are, along with the cinematography and the barren set design, inexorably responsible for turning this film in what seems like a Baroque painterly nightmare. A sexy nightmare at that, for there are few period films that so efficiently inject a searing carnality into their narrative proceedings, or that so violently create visual and thematic connections between desire and death. A hedonistic procession through a palace corridor is later reinterpreted as a desperate run for survival through a building filled, not with steamy sexual activity, but huddles of naked corpses. A woman dresses in rich, but simple, bright colored clothing walks through the streets of Paris in search of a lover in one scene, while later, she follows the same path, but in her way stand not potential objects of pleasure, but the remains of monstrous carnage and her costume has changed from rich blue to a dark, sanguine red.
Such costume evolutions are central to the visual discourse of La Reine Margot, whose clothing is the epitome of such ideas I’ve expressed about viscerally and sacred beauty. Unencumbered by the limitations of historical recreation, Bickel created a wardrobe where the cotton damasks are almost constantly infused with either perspiration or blood. Through her designs you can both get the idea of a painting come to life and the sensorial reality of such a world, with its sweltering heat and uncomfortable court rituals. Just by looking at these moving tableaux you can practically smell the sweat, blood and cum.
I’m afraid I might have got a little bit lost in my argumentation, so maybe it’s time to stop with my futile explanations and just present my best shot.
But, I wouldn’t be me without a little more of extraneous text, so here’s my runner-up:
This is one of Margot’s simpler costumes consisting of a sleeveless dress worn with a white chemise, with beautifully full sleeves that are always ready to get stained with blood. In this shot, despite the peacefulness of the image and the pause in narrative bloodbaths, the color of the costume, and the fact this was the same one she wore during the night when the killings started, injects into the scene the shadow of violence. Around her lone figure, stands a room, almost barren of color or decoration, apart from empty frames. Throughout the film you never see a single painting hanging on the walls, but you don’t need to. After all, as I think I’ve established the entire film is like a living painting of the Catholic Counter Reform, these empty frames only emphasize such matters.
Following that train of thought, here’s my best shot:
When he was starting pre-production on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola had the peculiar idea of creating a film where the costumes would act as the sole focus of visual emphasis. In his own words, he wanted the costumes to be the set. Eventually, such radicalisms were abandoned, but that idea is, nonetheless, worthy of admiration and consideration.
While he and Ishioka didn’t succeed with their original intents, La Reine Margot almost achieves that. After all, with its simple sets, it’s the costumes and the beauty of the human bodies on display which give the film its specific look. And in images like this shot it’s hard to ignore such predominance of the costumes above any other visual element. Here, the costumes truly are the sets, the space, and the world the characters inhabit. A world of monarchical opulence and catholic ostentation as facades to moral putridness and savage inhumanity, all of it visualized through the rich jewels, the red damasks and gold opulence of catholic pageantry.
This is a Baroque painting come to life; a rigid composition that underlines the power structures in play during such a theatrical ritual of royal marriage; a showpiece of the mastery of the costume design in all its glorious mixture of ostentatious dramatics and ahistorical theatricality and simplification; a cutting illustration of religion as a conductor and vehicle for violence in the cross that hangs above the humans over a background of dark bloody red; a beautiful prelude for a film and story of carnage and horrifying cruelty, of carnality and eroticism, of sensuous romance and nauseating historical crimes.