Too often we, as viewers, tend to forget the symbolic and iconic value of color and how it can create ideas only by being there. This is very relevant in paintings, but also, on film; through the set design, the cinematography and, of course, the costume design.
The 1994's French adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel is a movie that uses that at it's fullest potential, creating a stunningly beautiful (and very well orchestrated) spectacle of death. The movie, directed by Patrice Chéreau, is a tale of intrigue, murder and gore that centers around death itself, and so, the heavy crimsons of blood are a constant presence in the frame; from the sets, to the props, to the beautiful brocaded gowns.
And it is color that takes central stage in the designs in order to clearly separate the two opposing factions in the narrative: catholics and protestants.
The movie starts with a country divided into two factions that will eventually collide to horrifying consequences. These factions are mainly differentiated through the costume design, facilitating an easy and quick visual identification of each side of the conflict.
On the high ground there are the catholic majority; they are the establishment, the dominant group. The monarchy and the court (the top of the social and political ladder) are Catholics, and so they start with a lot more power than the Protestants.
This dominance is depicted in a dominance in color. The palette for the catholic characters is a very bright one; reds, bright greens, golds, and whites.
These colors dominate the frame completely, drawing the viewers' eyes to them, and chocking the presence and visibility of the Protestant minority in the frame itself.
This dominance is also shown through the type of fabric used for their costumes: most of the catholic characters are dressed in very elaborate and expensive fabrics; silks and velvets as well as richly sewn jewelry and embroidery.
Their clothes literally glitter. It's all a display of power and wealth. A way of showing who's on top, in a manner of speaking.
Both men and women cover themselves in pearls and brooches and lavish materials, clearly parading their social status and political power.
And all this lavishness is accompanied of big, extravagant shapes. Look at those ruffles in the above picture. They are very pompous, giving the impression of peacocks strolling around; parading their power. You can actually feel the opulence in which they live.
Amongst this vibrant display of velvets and silks, there's a color that sticks out amongst any other: bright, vibrant red.
This is color coding at its best; conveying an idea referent to this group only through the constant presence of a specific color. It's a visual and subconscious way of conveying to the viewer a very clear idea: catholic hands are covered in blood, be it by direct action (like Anjou or the King) or indirect action (like Margot).
By doing that, the movie takes a very clear stand on whose "hands are dirtiest" in this conflict. This is not an even battle, the odds (and the guilt) are completely on the catholics' side, and most of it is blamed on their intolerance.
This idea allows the costumes to become a constant thematic reminder for the audience.
The fact that the Duke of Anjou is actually crowned in red is only a logical consequence of that color code. Anjou comes to the throne after a bloody set of events, many of which he has had a direct hand in consummating.
The last element to the designs is a very particular one: dirt. This was not a common thing (especially considering that this was made in the 90's, nowadays it's much more common), many period pieces tended to relish cleanness, as if historical costumes could not be worn unless perfectly clean.
This is not the case with La Reine Margot. Here, every single character (except Margot) seems to be covered in sweat and dirt. The movie shows a lot of bodies in close contact, sweating together. Packed rooms and parties seem to be the norm for the catholic court in the movie.
All these (the colors, the dirt, the shapes, the fabrics...) make this faction look like rotten fruit. It gives the whole court an air of sickness and stench. As if the court itself was rotten (which is one of the center ideas of Dumas' novel).
Explaining all these ideas mainly through costume is very useful in a movie that's already very cluttered and dense as it is.
In direct opposition to the Catholic faction, stands the Protestant faction; the MINORITY. This, once again, is very cleverly shown through the costume design (through the chosen palette, the fabric and the style).
The first and most obvious difference in the design is the color palette. Instead of bright, vivid color, the protestant designs restrain themselves to black and white (almost exclusively).
True, this is completely historical (at least in France and Germany, England is a whole other thing) but I doubt they would have kept it if it hadn't worked thematically within the narrative of the story.
This choice of palette shows a simplicity on their part (as opposed to the opulence of the Catholics) as well as a strictness in their lifestyle (that matches their religious beliefs).
The type of fabrics used in their designs is also simpler, more humble. Here, the designer doesn't use silks and velvets, instead, uses linens and leathers. This adds an air of sobriety that is lacking in the Catholic's designs.
The shapes are also more minimal, more discreet. Even a character as powerful as Henri de Navarre is shown to wear rather simple clothes. This is a statement in and on itself.
The ruffle is rather small and contained, as is the doublet; showing a rather humble personality.
These design parameters affect both the male character and the female characters, obviously.
But this simplicity poses a problem; how do you differentiate between different characters and personalities when they are all so simple?
Well, if you have a character that is a bit too proud and has an air of self-importance, you add bigger shapes and richer fabrics, while still maintaining the basic palette.
And if you have a character that is poor? Well, you use even simpler shapes, simpler fabrics, and you make his clothes look like they're too tight on him (because he has out-grown them).
|La Mole, a destitute Huguenot, is Margot's lover|
La Mole is the Huguenot character that deviates more out of the protestant basic design. The closer he gets to Margot, the more he deviates. The more in love he falls, the better the fabrics get. And he also starts wearing light blues, instead of blacks.
And again, so much is transmitted to the viewer with so little; visually conveying that Huguenots lead a different lifestyle and exactly what that is.
In the middle of it all stands a figure who cares little about the conflict itself and yet, is the sole mastermind behind most of the events: the Queen Mother, Catalina de Medici (beautifully played by Virna Lisi).
Although she's on the catholic's side, she doesn't really care about the religious conflict. All that she cares about is keeping her sons secure on the throne, and she'll do anything to achieve it.
And so, she's presented as this Machiavellian figure; all dressed in red and gold, and with a ruffle that makes her look like a spider.
But once the chain of events leading to the massacre is set in motion, she swaps the red for an ominous black, and all her designs from that point onwards maintain that darkness.
This helps her turn into this looming presence in the shadows; like death lurking in dark corners.
The shapes for her designs are consistently grand and theatrical, accentuating the dangerous side of her character.
She's the hand of death, choking the life out of everything she touches and so, her design looks more like how you would dress death than how you would dress a widower.
A RELIGIOUS CONFLICT
Red, literally, taints the frame (mainly achieved through production design and costume design), and behind all of the characters dressed in sumptuous red drapes, stands a huge Christ, the excuse over which these characters will taint the streets in blood.