History, Fiction and “Anachronism”: Music in La Reine Margot

Dr Alex Robinson, Paris-Sorbonne University

For scholars, the relationship between films based on historical themes versus written history – whether original documents or academics’ narratives of past events – can sometimes feel, to borrow Robert Rosenstone’s expression, like “opponents in a boxing ring” (Rosenstone 1995, p. 2). As we have found in past REMOSS events, musicologists are no less guilty of making such distinctions. How many of us have at least occasionally frowned upon a seemingly inappropriate selection of pieces or the anachronistic nature of their interpretation, or even winced at a newly-composed score that seems totally at odds with the film’s historical subject matter?

Although such reactions may sometimes seem valid, defining what “anachronism” actually equates to is not always so cut and dry. No better example highlights this than films which, despite their setting in the past, are either entirely fictitious in nature or are (by intention) only partially based on fact. What role should music take in such cases? Is it more important that it simply enhances the dramatic aspect (by whatever means a director wishes), or is the recreation of an imagined past really best achieved by the use of historical music?

Patrice Chéreau’s 1994 film La Reine Margot provides an ideal prism through which to examine such questions. (The film has been uploaded in its entirety).

At first glance, it appears to be a simple reimagining of the events surrounding the 1572 marriage of Henry, King of Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois (or “Margot”, the daughter of Catherine de Medici), with its ensuing wave of Catholic mob violence directed against the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day. The real inspiration behind the film, however, is actually Alexandre Dumas’s 1845 novel of the same name. Dumas made no secret of his goal of broadening the appeal of French history to the masses; indeed, he firmly believed (to use his words) that there was nothing wrong with “violating” history as long as “you have a child by her” (Lucas-Dubreton 1929, p. 141). His historically loose retelling of these events from the French Religious Wars certainly remains true to this aim. Ironically, director Chéreau applies this same attitude towards Dumas’s own work, ramping up the sex and gore from the original novel. The film consequently feels a bit like a game of Chinese whispers; it has the “period look” of the 16th century, but only part of the genuine history that inspired it.

What bearing do these observations have on the music in La Reine Margot? Of course, many different options could have been exploited, from using late Renaissance French pieces, to repertoire contemporaneous with Dumas’s novel (or nineteenth-century reworkings of Renaissance music), to portraying a soundscape that simply reinforces the assumptions that today’s (non-specialist) audiences already have about “olde worlde” music. The score for La Reine Margot generally falls into this latter category. It was composed by Goran Bregović, a renowned Yugoslav musician and film music composer known for his association with the band Bijelo Dugme, and it is heavily influenced by Balkan folk music. It thereby mirrors countless other medieval-inspired cinematic and theatrical productions, for which an imagined Celtic soundscape rooted in orientalism (the notion that the past is a foreign country) proves fundamental. A case in point is the music used for the festivities following the marriage ceremony of Henry and Margot, which occurs between 9:08 and 13:41 in the YouTube link cited above. (These pieces have also been directly uploaded from the CD recording of Bregović’s score).

Significantly, the viewer even sees an ensemble of musicians playing Renaissance instruments – a crumhorn, a tabor, a recorder, 2 lutes and a flute –  in this sequence (between 9:29 and 9:33 in the link for the complete film), but these are not the instruments which are actually heard here. This could be taken as proof that Bregović and Chéreau were simply motivated by a desire to recreate a generic past look (and sound). Yet there are ways in which this soundworld can be read as conveying more than just pseudo-“period feel.” According to Phil Powrie (Powrie 1999, p. 5), both Chéreau and the actress Isabelle Adjani, who played the part of Queen Margot, saw the La Reine Margot as a conscious metaphor for the Bosnian war (1992-5). Understood in this light, Bregović’s Balkan-inspired score can perhaps be seen as deliberate attempt to connect the bloody religious conflicts of 16th-century France with ones directly contemporaneous with the film’s creation.

There are other ways in which Bregović’s music subtly exploits the viewers’ (and listeners’) preconceptions. A prime example is the scene depicting Henry and Margot’s marriage itself in Notre-Dame Cathedral, especially between 6:00 and 9:06 in the YouTube link for the full film cited above. (For a slightly edited version of the scene, see:

Here, Bregović’s block-chord vocal writing, using words taken from the Mass ordinary, is dramatically interspersed with “Alleluia” incipits taken from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (from the opening Domine ad adjuvandum response). These quotations from two iconic pieces of Western Classical music seem completely out of place on first hearing; yet their magisterial and pompous character unequivocally reinforces the grandeur of this marriage and, for most people watching the film, probably does so far more effectively than any genuinely authentic music ever could.

In sum, La Reine Margot not only encourages us to revisit our assumptions about the role of music in historical films: it also forces us to reassess both how we define anachronism and the value we place on this concept. More importantly, perhaps, it highlights how history can be appreciated and understood on many different (but equally valid) levels – including one that is based on supposedly anti-historical ideals and which relies on little more than the “look” (and imagined sound) of the past.


Lucas-Dubreton, Jean. Alexandre Dumas, the Fourth Musketeer, trans. Maida Castelhun Darnton (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1929).

Marković, Aleksandra. “Goran Bregović, the Balkan Music Composer.” Ethnologia Balkanica 12 (2008): 9-23.

Powrie, Phil. “Heritage, History and ‘New Realism.’” In French cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference, ed. Phil Powrie, 1-21. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rosenstone, Robert A. “The Historical Film as Real History.” Filmhistoria online 5/1 (1995): 1-12 (http://revistes.ub.edu/index.php/filmhistoria/article/view/12244/14998)

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