Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 (2010)

Based on Heinrich Mann’s eponymous novel Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 is a large-scale epic about one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. This is a fascinating and eerily beautiful movie. It is a French-German co-production which explains why there are as many French as German actors.

I’m quite familiar with French history from Louis XIV on but what came before is somewhat blurred. I knew about the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (La St. Barthélemy) and the Edict of Nantes, was familiar with the Queen Margot and Catherine de Medici, I had even heard the famous saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” meaning “Paris is worth a mass” but I wouldn’t have tied all this together and associated it with Henry of Navarre, future King Henry IV of France. What a bloody story, full of treachery, passion, fanaticism, civil war and murder.

Henry, King of the little kingdom of Navarre, is forced to go to war at an early age. By the time he turns twenty it is all he knows. It is the time in which France is divided in two. Catholics are on one side, Protestants (Huguenots) on the other. The Civil War or Wars of Religion rage and tear the country apart. Paris and the court are held by Catholics who are to a certain extent ruled by the Pope. They don’t get married without the assent of the Holy Father. The people of the kingdom of Navarre and Henry himself are Protestants. The opposing parties meet on the battlefield more often than anywhere else.

France is unofficially reigned by the scary Catherine de Medici, the King’s mother. Charles, the King, is an anxious man, constantly afraid of being poisoned or murdered. His fear is well grounded as we will soon find out. Catherine de Medici had the reputation of being a cruel, despotic woman who had people executed on a whim. But even she is tired of war and arranges a marriage between her daughter, the beautiful Margot, and Henry of Navarre.

The marriage is overshadowed by the death of Henry’s mother, presumably she was poisoned. As soon as they are married someone orders to massacre all the protestants in the city which will be the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The following two-thirds of the story follow Henry until he finally becomes Henry IV, King of France. Many people had to lose their life to make this a possibility.

The movie excels in making these people come to life and shows us a King who was far beyond the ordinary. He was  much-loved, tolerant and accepting of people of every religious conviction. This may well have been the first step towards France becoming a secular country, something it has remained until today. Henry was also a womanizer, a trait the film-makers enjoyed to illustrate.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Henry IV, I’m not going to reveal too much. It should suffice to say that love plays a major role. He will also divorce the Queen Margot as she cannot give him the much-needed heir and will get married to Marie de Medici.

I didn’t know much about Henry IV, so I’m not sure how well-chosen Julien Boisselier is. He’s a pleasant, likable looking man and did a very good job.

Ulrich Noethen as Charles IX, is very convincing. He is an experienced actor who has starred in movies like The Downfall.

Having studied old French literature I had to read Agrippa D’Aubignés Les Tragiques. It’s a harrowing account of the times and the Wars of Religion. I liked that Agrippa played a prominent role in the movie. He is played by the excellent German actor Joachim Król. Agrippa was one of Henry’s best friends and only left him towards the end, to withdraw from the world and start to write his famous book.

The most fascinating character of them all, is Catherine de Medici. Hannelore Hoger, a German TV star, plays her very well. She gives an uncanny, eerie and quite scary Catherine de Medici.

All in all, I enjoyed Henry of Navarre a lot and will re-watch it. If you like epic movies, beautiful cinematography and French history you will enjoy it.

I’d like to thank Showbox Media Group for sending me a review copy of the movie.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.

Advertisements

Les femmes de l’ombre aka Female Agents (2008) Women in the Resistance

Not every slick-looking movie with good-looking actresses on the French Resistance is a good movie. Unfortunately not or Les femmes de l’ombre would have been great. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad it’s just not great. If you want an entertaining period drama, this is your movie (ok, there are a some torture scenes that dampen the experience a bit but nice clothes and make-up make up for it). It’s a little bit like Black Book aka Zwartboek but less convincing. The theme would have been interesting and worth dedicating a movie to.

Based on true events, it follows the story of Louise Desfontaine (Sophie Marceau), a sniper with the French Resistance. When things heat up in France she leaves for England and joins the SOE. One day she is contacted by an agent who happens to be her brother Pierre (Julien Boisselier) whom she suspected of being a collaborator. He hires her and four other women to rescue a British spy who has been captured in France by the Germans. The Germans aren’t aware of his identity and think he is German. The women will have to team up, two disguised as nurses, two as exotic dancers (yes, you will see them topless, it’s a French movie) and the fifth will place bombs under German cars.

The five women are a composite group, one is an ex-prostitute (Julie Depardieu), one the ex-girlfriend (Marie Gillain) of the Nazi officer (Moritz Bleibtreu) who tries to hunt them down.

What at first looks like a success soon goes awry. Louise’s brother get’s caught and we all know what that means.

The women go back to Paris on another mission and here things goe definitely very wrong as one gets captured and immediately crumbles under torture (one finger nail off and she spits it all out).

I can really not say why exactly I wasn’t too convinced. Because I have seen the brilliant L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime before? Or some of the movies on Nordic Resistance that are truly good? I think it is in part due to a slightly off-key cast. Every woman wears heavy make-up which is nice, only Sophie Marceau has to look somewhat stony faced and unattractive (she isn’t successful, she’s too beautiful to look unattractive). I think the producers and directors were aware they would be criticized for their choice of too pretty women and tried to balance this out by not showing a heavily made up Sophie Marceau. She is the sniper after all… Why, if they didn’t want her to look her very best, did they not cast another actress? Because she is a great actress? I always suspected her to be far from accomplished, and she really isn’t too good. I would have preferred her to look as beautiful as she can and not try so hard to look efficient. (I’m thinking of Demi Moore as G.I. Jane who was much more convincing.) I think you can actually be cold-blooded without looking it. And I am not a big fan of Moritz Bleibtreu either. At least not in supposedly serious roles (I have seen him in German movies in which I found him very good). Julien Boisselier and the other four actresses are very good, especially Julie Depardieu and Marie Gillain.

Les femmes de l’ombre aka Female Agents is entertaining, just don’t expect to much of it. If you want the real deal, watch L’armée du crime.