It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. Oh, what a revolution! And what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.
But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.
--Edmund Burke, On the Death of Marie Antoinette, 1793
Few monarchical movies have been as heavily publicized in advance as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. For months ahead of the film’s general release in October 2006, articles in the international press discussed both the movie and the title character. Reactions were mixed; the movie was booed at Cannes (perhaps for being too sympathetic to the queen on whose murder the French Republic was built); some critics found it vapid and tiresome, while others, like Roger Ebert, were delighted with it. Within the internet’s royalist and traditional Catholic communities, many of those who revere the historical Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) wondered whether the film, with its contemporary dialogue and soundtrack, would do justice to a historical figure who still evokes strong feelings more than two centuries after her death.
Having finally seen the movie for myself, I am happy to report that while not without flaws and errors, Marie Antoinette is largely a success, and should be seen by anyone fascinated by the tragic queen, French history, or royalty in general. First of all, tribute must be paid to the stunning visuals. Since the movie was filmed at the real Versailles, perhaps some of the credit should go to Louis XIV and his architects and builders, but the filmmakers undoubtedly created a masterpiece of color and style. It is unlikely that anyone living today will ever experience a closer approximation of what it was like to be at Versailles during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI than by watching this movie. Against the backdrop of the splendid real palace, the costumes, cinematography, and script combine to seductively admit the viewer to court. A particularly ingenious, if almost frustrating, trick is the use of gossipy background dialogue of which one cannot quite make out every word, perfectly conveying the role that partially veiled whispers played at the French court.
Without objecting on principle to French characters being portrayed by American actors, I could not find fault with the casting. Kirsten Dunst exquisitely captures the title character’s naïvité, charm, and joie de vivre. Jason Schwartzman is perfect as the well-meaning, kind-hearted and virtuous but inadequate Louis XVI (1754-1793). And Rip Torn virtually steals the first part of the show as the authentically randy elderly Louis XV (1710-1774).
It is tempting for traditional royalists who revere the principled conservative activist and brave counterrevolutionary martyr that Marie Antoinette eventually became towards the end of her life to forget that she once really was a frivolous teenager who appeared to care primarily for parties, gambling, and clothes. But this aspect of the young queen’s life, so extravagantly depicted in this movie, is a legitimate part of her story, without which her transformation into a woman many Catholic royalists would like to see canonized would not be nearly as moving. Coppola’s film ends at the beginning of the Revolution and therefore does not depict Marie Antoinette’s arguably finest hours, which is perhaps understandable since to have done so adequately at the pace already established would have made the film, already over two hours, prohibitively long. But even within this timeframe we see the queen mature, immersing herself in her children, favoring simpler clothes and hairstyles, and demonstrating her growing awareness of France’s precarious finances by renouncing diamonds.
One of Coppola’s more controversial choices is her use of contemporary pop tunes for the soundtrack. As one who prefers the music of Marie Antoinette’s time to that of our own, I had reservations about how this would work. I was relieved to discover that, contrary to what I had been led to expect, pop music is not used exclusively; classical compositions by Vivaldi, Couperin, Scarlatti, and Rameau are employed when the solemnity of the occasions depicted demands. Pop music is used mostly for scenes depicting frivolity, and in this context it works. The young Marie Antoinette was, after all, a fun-loving girl who enjoyed parties, and had she been born about two centuries later, she might very well have listened to the sort of music heard on this soundtrack. If part of Coppola’s goal was to get modern movie-going teenagers to relate to a remote historical figure, her choices of music, while perhaps jarring to traditionalists, might help her succeed.
As a professional classical musician, though, it was gratifying to see the delight that Marie Antoinette as portrayed by Dunst takes in the real music of her time. She goes to the opera because she genuinely enjoys it, not because it is the fashionable thing to do. Indeed, her unaffected enthusiasm earns her disapproving glares from those not accustomed to vigorous applause. At a nocturnal outdoor party, she and other young royals and aristocrats casually discuss Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro as today’s young people might discuss the latest blockbuster movie.
Politics takes a back seat in this movie, but the few political discussions depicted seem reasonably accurate. Louis XVI’s fatal indeciveness is demonstrated when his ministers propose aiding the American revolutionaries against Great Britain. The young king’s initial reaction reflects his solid conservative instincts: he cannot see how a king can rightfully help those who are rejecting the authority of their king. But when his ministers insist that their plan will strengthen France’s geopolitical position versus Britain, he gives in, with ultimately disastrous consequences for the French treasury and therefore his throne. I am not sure that the real Louis XVI gave in quite as quickly as depicted in this scene, but the gist of it is correct, and tragic for those of us who know what his reluctant decision would unleash.
My strongest disagreement with Marie Antoinette is one of which I was aware before seeing it. Like the book on which it is based, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Fraser at least admits that her conclusion cannot be proved, while the movie leaves no room for any such doubts), Coppola’s film maintains that Marie Antoinette enjoyed an adulterous affair with the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen (1755-1810) (Jamie Dornan). Like most royalists, I hold that since there is no proof that adultery actually occurred, and substantial reasons to doubt that it did, Marie Antoinette’s fidelity to her husband should be given the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, especially given the elaborate lengths to which Coppola herself has gone earlier in the movie to demonstrate Marie Antoinette’s total lack of privacy, it is difficult to imagine how she could have gotten away with it. It may have been easy for kings to commit adultery; that was not the case for queens.
Pragmatic considerations aside, while the young Marie Antoinette may not have been as pious as she eventually became, her Catholic upbringing and character seem to have been solid enough, and her understanding of the necessity to her role as queen of providing the king with legitimate heirs thorough enough, that it is difficult to imagine that she actually crossed the line into physical adultery, however fond she might have been of the handsome count. The most of which the historical Marie Antoinette can be accused is imprudence. Even from a strictly cinematic standpoint, the inclusion of the affair is problematic, since after his alleged tryst with the queen Fersen simply disappears from the plot (when in reality he continued to serve the royal family throughout the Revolution). Fortunately, this particular plot line takes up only a tiny fraction of the movie’s total running time. After the film quickly tires of celebrating adultery, over which neither party appears to feel any guilt, Marie Antoinette is (accurately) depicted as totally devoted to her husband, the affair apparently having had no effect upon her marriage. It is unlikely that this would have been the case for any 18th-century Catholic woman, especially a queen, who had been unfaithful to her husband. Presumably Coppola felt that a little extramarital sex was necessary to spice up her heroine, but I disagree; historically, morally, and dramatically, her otherwise excellent movie would have worked better without it.
One historical inaccuracy, highly unlikely to be noticed by most viewers, is jarring to those of us familiar with royal genealogy. In the movie, Marie Antoinette’s sister-in-law, the Countess of Provence, gives birth to a son, the Duke of Angoulême, prior to the death of King Louis XV. There are several problems with this. The real Countess of Provence, Josephine (1753-1810), wife of the future King Louis XVIII (1755-1824), was childless. In reality, it was the Countess of Artois, Maria Teresa (1756-1805), wife of the future King Charles X (1757-1836), who gave birth to Louis XV’s first great-grandson in the male line, who was indeed Duke of Angoulême, but not until 1775, a year after the old king had died. Since this scene would have accomplished its purpose (demonstrating the apparent inadequacy of Marie Antoinette, who remained childless until 1778) just as well if rendered accurately, one wonders why the details had to be changed.
These flaws, while unfortunate, are, I think, outweighed by Sofia Coppola’s achievement in bringing Marie Antoinette and Versailles to life for a new generation. Surely Kirsten Dunst’s sympathetic portrayal of the ultimately martyred queen will inspire at least some viewers to learn more about her, which can only be a good thing. Perhaps this film will even act as a catalyst for a rehabilitation of Marie Antoinette, whose reputation has been so unfairly maligned by Jacobin propaganda. Towards the end of the film, I was struck by the same sadness so eloquently expressed by Edmund Burke in 1793, that no one had saved this beautiful and well-meaning woman, and that I, born almost two centuries later, could certainly not do so. But those of us who love the best of what the French monarchy stood for can still serve her by keeping her ideals alive and denying assent to the revolutionary order that murdered her. Vive le roi! And Vive la reine!
November 1-2, 2006