History Seen As Melodrama

Bloody, romantic, wildly operatic, Queen Margot is not for those who like their historical dramas well mannered. French director Patrice Chereau, enfant terrible of the theater and opera world, hurls us into the vipers' nest of the 16th-century court of Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), the neurotic Catholic king whose sister, Margot (Isabelle Adjani), is forced to marry Protestant Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) in hope of ending the religious wars ripping France apart. The brief peace is destroyed when the king, the pawn of his bloodthirsty mother, Catherine de Medicis (Virna Lisi), orders up the 1572 ""ethnic cleansing'' known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Amid the terror, Margot saves the life of her hunky Protestant lover, La Mole (Vincent Perez) -- and then must fight her family for her husband's, and La Mole's, survival. It's Romeo and Juliet knee-deep in carnage, staged with Jacobean fury, lurid sensuality and high style by the recklessly gifted Chereau.

In the 1940s, at the start of Zhang Yimou's wrenching Chinese epic To Live, the dissolute hero, Fugui (Ge You), loses everything -- his home, his family, his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li) -- at the gambling tables. It's one of the film's bitter ironies that this cataclysm may be Fugui's luckiest moment, for after the civil war brings Mao to power, the penniless Fugui can pass as a proletarian and stave off the axe of political retribution. But as the film progresses from the Great Leap Forward in the '50s through the madness of the Cultural Revolution -- captured with a whiplash mix of black comedy and tragedy -- the man who's lost everything discovers there's far more to lose. Superbly shot, this angry, tear-drenched saga is Zhang's (""Raise the Red Lantern'') most openly emotional film. If it's better at charting the tidal waves of misfortune that break upon Fugui and his family than at exploring nuances of character, maybe that's Zhang's point: in Mao's China, individualism was the most dangerous luxury.