A little over a week ago I went to see Henri 4 (beware a slightly annoying website, in German- this site has the details without the seemingly unstoppable video), Henry of Navarre for English audiences, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I was delighted to see that they were showing it as I had been doubtful that I’d get the chance to see it on the big screen, if at all. EIFF surpassed themselves by not only showing it but having the director, Jo Baier there to do an introduction and Q&A at the end.
Henri 4 charts the life of Henri IV of France from 1563, his childhood in Pau, to his death in 1610. It’s a big life to fit into two and a half hours and as a result some parts feel rushed. Despite having a decent grounding in the history of the time and Henri’s life, I sometimes found it difficult to get a sense of time passing. The four years he spent effectively imprisoned in the Louvre after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre seemed like a few days.
The film itself will unavoidably be compared to Patrice Chéreau’s fabulous La Reine Margot (1994) which covers much of the same historical territory. Indeed, there are a few scenes in Baier’s film which are clearly heavily influenced by Chéreau. However, Henri IV is not a film about the massacre, or a love story as Chéreau’s film is. Margot, Catherine de’ Medici and the court itself are relegated to the background so that Henri can take his place centre stage.
Henri himself is well cast with Frenchman Julien Boisselier in the role. Boisselier does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Henri and his willingness to engage with all his subjects rather than living solely in the bubble of the court. He is charming, witty and hugely entertaining.
Margot, on the other hand, is rather two-dimensional: she spends almost all her scenes either being beaten or threatened by her family, or having sex. That is pretty much it. The character struck me as being a (rather unimaginative) man’s idea of the embodiment of sexy. Her eye make-up was heavy khol, dramatically streaming down her face at points. The addition of fingerless gloves and she would not have looked out of place in a sub-par goth music video. I was disappointed in Baier’s Margot- she lacked any of the depth of Isabelle Adjani in Chéreau’s film which was a real shame. Catherine de’ Medici was not quite so bad, though I still vastly prefer Virna Lisi’s tour de force which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes. It was a hard act to follow.
Henri’s women are not all Margots though. Gabrielle d’Estrées, his long term mistress, is portrayed with a quiet determination and intelligence (and no gratuitous eye-liner). It would have been nice to see a little more of her character development but what we do get is almost enough to redeem the Playboy version of Margot.
Henri 4 is, however, more historically accurate than La Reine Margot. While the latter was based on the nineteenth century novel by Dumas, the former is based on the post-war novels of Heinrich Mann who, according to Baier, wrote them after he had fled Nazi Germany because he felt that Henri IV was the opposite of Hitler- a leader who strove for peace, toleration and improved living conditions for his people. Indeed, there is a lovely scene in the film where a poor woman offers the king some chicken stew, reflecting his statement that all Frenchmen should be able to have “une poule dans son pot” (a chicken in his pot) at least once a week.
The film was produced on a shoe-string budget. As Baier put it in the Q&A, it was a high budget for Germany, but not high for anywhere else. This shows occasionally- Paris is clearly an indoor set- but only occasionally. The battle scenes in particular are remarkable. The actors had cameras attached to them during filming and the impact is far more realistic, gruesome fighting that the dainty set pieces which are far easier to produce. Baier said that wanted to show his audience how terrible such fighting was: he has succeeded.
Baier, who was an interesting speaker with fantastic English, said that his film was about being human in an inhuman time and how things have perhaps not evolved as much as we like to think they have since then. His vision of sixteenth century France is gloriously and grimly accurate and he resists the temptation to labour the analogy to contemporary religious conflict, treating it with a a sufficiently light hand to make the point, and no more. The film is all the stronger for the lack of lecture.
If you are lucky enough to get the chance to see this in a cinema, take it. It’s worth it for the battle scenes alone. I will be getting a copy on dvd as soon as I possibly can.