I am a glutton for punishment (a BORED glutton for punishment) and I thought I’d give Marie Antoinette another spin.
MA is the 2006 film by Sophia Coppola that presented itself as a biopic of the infamous French queen, from her marriage to Louis Auguste when she was only a teenager, until her flight from Versailles at the outbreak of the French Revolution. Note: there is no execution scene in the film. I KNOW. Coppola claimed that her film was based on the book Marie Antoinette: The Journey by historian Antonia Fraser, though she admitted that she had taken some historic license (ha).
Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst and apparently ageless between age 15 and 33) begins life as a carefree, overly-affectionate Princess of Austria named Antoine, betrothed to Louis Auguste, the Dauphin of France, as a teenager. She is immediately unsuited to the role as Dauphine. Her marriage to the shy, inexperienced heir is unconsummated for seven years, and she throws herself into overindulgence, buying new clothes and shoes, wearing rouge, playing cards, and disporting constantly. This frivolity earns her the hatred of the French people, and you all know the rest.
The first half of the film watches like this:
– Marie lies in bed with Louis, sexually frustrated because he won’t touch her.
– Marie gets up in the morning and her attendants dress her.
– Marie goes to Mass with her ladies.
– Marie and Louis eat a silent, awkward meal.
– Marie spends a lot of money on clothes, shoes, and various over-fluffed pastries.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Seriously.
This is interspersed with shots of Marie reading letters of admonition from her mother, telling her that it’s her responsibility to secure the consummation of her marriage and that her position is insecure until she produces an heir to the throne. And we see a couple scenes of Marie running with French fops, drinking champagne, attending the Opera (the Palaise Garnier or Paris Opera House wasn’t built until nearly a century later) and a masked ball, and running around the French countryside watching the sun rise. I sit here and wonder why this is supposed to make me feel sorry for Marie; thus far she’s being painted as nothing more than an 18th-century Desperate Housewife.
Marie’s brother comes to visit and speak to her and Louis about their unconsummated marriage (AWKWARD) and Marie presents him a cup of “flowering tea.” This method of tea-drinking was not discovered until the 20th century (although the Teavana website reinforces the myth that Marie was presented flowering tea by the Emperor of China). Shortly after the talk, Marie’s brother appeals to Louis’ interests by speaking of sexual intercourse as an analogy for a “lock and key” (referencing Louis’ interests in locksmithing) and somehow, that does it for him and they conceive a child. In reality, Louis was born with a disorder of the foreskin which made an erection painful, which caused him to avoid sex until he received a circumcision late in life. IN ANY CASE, Marie gets pregnant and endures the incredibly-humiliating experience of a public birth, they have a daughter, and all seems well.
Of course, then we cut to scenes of Marie playing in the Petit Trianon, probably the most damning of Marie’s possessions in the eyes of the French people. The Trianon was Marie’s “little village” that she had set up on the grounds of Versailles, where she and her friends could escape the pressures of court (Here I have to ask Ms. Coppola: what pressures? So far we’ve just seen her dressing, eating, and dancing around). They would dress in simple clothes and pretend they were commoners, drink milk and eat food prepared from Marie’s cows and gardens, and row boats in the lake.
On to Count Fersen. Much has been made of his relationship with Marie — the film is no different. Although at this point Marie appears to have a decent relationship with King Louis, she is besotted with Count Fersen when he arrives at court and immediately embarks on an affair with him. Although historians such as Frasier have admitted there may be some credence to the Marie Antoinette/Count Fersen affair, there has never been unquestionable proof to it. Though I have to admit, watching Marie do it with sexy Count Fersen is much hotter than watching her fumble around with bumbling Louis. But then Fersen goes back to Sweden and Marie mopes around Versailles, because of course life has no meaning when all you have is a king for a husband and tons of servants and pretty clothes and a house in the countryside and a palace and…yeah.
And maybe it’s time for Marie to settle down and be queen except it’s a little too late, because the French peasants are starving and maybe Louis should have done something about that instead of playing with cards and locks this whole time? Now everyone hates Marie, which they did all along because she’s from Austria (and relations between France and Austria were always shit except for literally the ten minutes where Marie was engaged to Louis). Marie has a son, finally, and that seems to kind of quell the storm for awhile (Side note: I read online that some people were questioning, because of the timing of the film, whether the baby was Louis’ or Fersen’s child. Hrm. Surprised that Coppola didn’t run with that). Then comes a series of tragedies — the death of her mother and of a child. In the film, Marie produces three children and loses one — in reality, she had four children and lost one. We find this out through a really awkward scene where a painting of Marie with three children is hung on the wall, taken down, and replaced with the third baby being painted out.
Really, the scenes spliced together are supposed to elicit some feeling for poor Marie, but it doesn’t work very well. Because as soon as she’s done mourning for her mother and child, we see yet ANOTHER scene of Marie and Louis sitting idly outside while their minions play croquet…which is where they are when they find out that the Bastille prison has been stormed and surprise! Everyone hates them. In order to save her friends’ skins (which didn’t work in the end), Marie sends them all away and remains with Louis. Versailles is stormed that night by an angry mob. In one of the historically accurate scenes in the film, Marie walks out on her balcony and greets the mob by bowing low to them. Her gesture doesn’t placate the mob, and Marie and Louis try to eat their ridiculous multi-course meals with the mob screaming outside.
They are taken from Versailles shortly after, and Marie and Louis stare out the window of the carriage as they leave their glittering home for the last time. The final shot is a still frame of Marie’s ornate bedroom, chandelier shattered, curtains torn and ripped, an analogy of her failed queenship. Because, in the end…it was really all about the stuff.
And the style. The film is less a biopic about Marie as it is an allegory for the frivolity and the extravagance of youth. It doesn’t elicit sympathy for Marie, simply because she just refuses to get it. Whether that’s her fault, her husband’s fault, or the fault of a ridiculous court as a whole is beyond the scope of the film. It does have some good qualities — it is literally a feast for the senses, between the clothes (the costumer designer took home Oscar), the colors and the music. Women (particularly those obsessed with the Rococo period and fashion like the lolita subculture) will love this film. Their husbands and boyfriends will wait forever for the decapitation scene that never comes. And history lovers will just stare blankly at this piece of frivolity that is a lot of beautiful fluff and little else.
Rating: 2 stars.