CINEMA : Margot: a royal in search of a roll

WITH delicious irony, the great dissection of British monarchy turns out to be French. La Reine Margot (18) is too stately and subtle to be taken as a broadside at our royals, but the House of Windsor must feel some rumbles from its mighty impact . The events are set in 16th-century France, and they show our current royal crop to be mere amateurs in matters of regal decline and decadence. The marriage of religious convenience between the Catholic Margot (Isabelle Adjani) and the Protestant Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) is, Prince Charles-style, loveless, but also avowedly sexless. When Margot fancies a fling with a commoner (Vincent Perez's La Mole), mere toe-sucking is not enough: she mounts him against the castle wall in full public view.

As for adultery - don't mention anything so tame. We are dealing with multiple incest, rape and murder. The symptoms are more extreme than here and now. But the disease is the same: the dilemma of being royal.

Nowhere is this made clearer than in Isabelle Adjani's mercurial Margot, a royal in search of a role. When we first meet her, she looks to be what Lord Charteris would term a vulgarian - her coarse laughter mocking her own marriage as she eyes up a suitable stranger to spend the night with. Her almond eyes are those of a soul alarmed but also tainted by the hatred around her. As the film progresses, and her love for the protestant La Mole prospers, her character softens and brightens. "One da y you'll know who you are," Henri tells her. Manacled to her royal station, she must constantly re-invent herself. In this tenebrous world, she knows the need to keep bright amid the shadows.

At this point, I'd better put on my galoshes and wade into the gore of the plot. It's 1572. The marriage of Margot and Henri, a ruse to unite Catholics and Protestants, is a sham, designed by Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), the effective ruler of state, to wrap up the kingdom for her son, King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade). The failure of this ploy leads to the St Bartholomew Day massacre in Paris of 6,000 Protestants. That pricks Margot's conscience to attend to the fate of her lover and her husband, both Protestants. Poison and ferocious boar-hunting play their part.

There are twists and turns, and gruesome deaths (a man sweating out his own blood) straight from Jacobean tragedy, and the mood is of the charnel-house. Much of the credit for the disturbing atmosphere must go to Philippe Rousselot's grimly beautiful cinematography. A career of ravishing images, in France (Diva, Trop belle pour toi) and America (Dangerous Liaisons), has established Rousselot as one of the few cameramen with his own palette. Like a bat, he is especially attracted to the dark and to candles. Here, often a third of the screen is convulsed in blackness - in the maw of an empty fireplace or the gloom of the shadows - so that the dark seems poised to swallow up the wretched players on the regal stage.

Rousselot also photographed Interview with the Vampire, which opens next week. It too has a nocturnal splendour, but the light - perhaps because it's a Hollywood film - is softer. In La Reine Margot it is harsh and unforgiving - especially to the faces of its scheming cast. Catherine de Medici is given a skull-like pallor. Dressed throughout in a black dress which covers and crushes her bosom, her hair scraped back under a veil, she resembles a poisonous insect. Nor are we spared the writhing moods of the unstable king (an intriguing performance from Jean-Hugues Anglade, the boyfriend in Betty Blue), which display how the greatest paranoia often springs from the greatest power.

Unsavoury characters scuttle through the film like vermin. A special mention must go to Ulrich Wildgruber's Rene, an acolyte of Catherine de Medici, who specialises in perfume and poison. With his flabby face, balding pate and flustered manner, this dea d ly practitioner is a Gallic Roy Kinnear, and comes to symbolise the blithe cruelty of the court. As Margot asks: "What is betrayal but one's skill at following events?" If the film has a redeeming strand, it is the way Margot finds rapprochement in roman ce, proving the power of people over politics.

Devotees of French cinema may be ambivalent about La Reine Margot. It is sumptuous, accomplished and just a bit empty. We're used to accusing British cinema of doting on the past. Now the tendency has crossed the Channel, with a French-heritage cinema which is largely the creation of one man, Claude Berri (director of Jean de Florette and last year's Germinal). Berri is said to have had a production role in La Reine Margot, but he is not credited as producer. That may be significant, as part o f director Patrice Chereau's achievement is to steer away from Berri's brand of celebratory gentility.

Chereau pitches the film between two poles: the sordid and the ethereal. Between the pomp and hushed beauty of Margot's wedding and the horror of the dead heaped in piles by the roadside, waiting for wagons to carry them to unmarked mass graves (a Holocaust of religious hatred whose contemporary relevance cannot be missed). When Margot saves La Mole, the imagery is of Mary Magdalene lifting Christ off the cross. The achievement of Chereau's film is to reveal the people, in all their squalor and occasional grace, behind the myth of royalty - that, and to make two-and-a-half hours zip by.

We are still in Paris for Killing Zoe (18), and the bodies are still piling up, though this time it is the present day. Directed by Roger Avary, a pal and collaborator of Quentin Tarantino, Killing Zoe feels like a stray tale from Pulp Fiction: perhaps the story of what happened to John Travolta's Vincent Vega in Paris that time he learnt about the metric system and "le Big Mac". Eric Stoltz plays an American safe-breaker who has been hired by French friends to work with them on a bank raid. Julie Delpy plays the prostitute, Zoe, who confuses their plans. Like Tarantino's work, the film is hip, funny (particularly Gary Kemp's cameo as a stupid but effusive gang member), and fascinated by the dangers of taking recreation too far. There is also the same worrying euphoria in violence, without the same acute ear for modern speech. There is a sequence that seems to stand for the whole movie (similar to one in Tarantino's script for Natural Born Killers): a joke told by a gang member which ends in a bloodba th.

Eat Drink Man Woman (PG) is Ang Lee's follow-up to The Wedding Banquet, and takes the foodie theme a course further. It is the story of a great Taiwanese chef (Sihung Lung), of diminishing powers, and his relationship with his three restive, home-living

daughters - a culinary King Lear. The food - dishes such as Dragon Swimming on Yellow Sea (lobster and sliced kiwi - preparation time: six hours) - is mouth-watering. But the constant parallels between food and love are too facile to be illuminating. Th e movie works as romantic melodrama - with a surprise finale - but is more of a starter than a main course. To leave an audience hungry is not always a sign of success.

Nostradamus (15) is a watchable biopic of the 16th-century seer, undeserving of the gales of derision that greeted its press showing. Not enough is made of the story's phantasmagoric possibilities, and we learn little about Nostradamus (Tcheky Karyo), other than that he was ravenous for both knowledge and sex. But we get a glimpse of how his inspiration may have sprung from a mixture of science and trauma.

All F***ed Up (18), now running at the ICA, starts with some gloomy, videotaped views on love, sex and Aids, and grows into a tale of unrequited gay love. It is most effective in depicting a Los Angeles wasteland, populated by rootless, disenfranchised

youth: a world where happiness is not so much an illusion as an impossibility.

Cinema details: Review, page 74. `The River Wild' has been delayed.