Tag Archives: women’s history

“Marie Antoinette”: Good Feel, No Context

Marie Antoinette

Released: 2006

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman

Period of history in focus: Marie Antoinette’s time in France about 1770 – 1789

Has it really been two months since I updated?  Wow, what do I do with myself?  Perhaps I’ve spent too much time casually lounging about in my garden.

I chose Marie Antoinette because I have recently read an excellent biography on her (by the fantastic historian Antonia Fraser) and I remembered watching the movie in college but not how accurate it was.  Furthermore, this is a movie starring a woman (which I haven’t done since Anne of the Thousand Days) and is directed by a woman!  The film as a whole tends to get a bad rap for several reasons: 1) It was marketed as this totally hip movie with all these contemporary songs in it! 2) When people watched it, was much more historically based. 3) There is very little talking.

Overall, I think the movie is likeable.  It even touches on some wonderful points and gets completely precise and sometimes ridiculous etiquette of Versailles down.  As a viewer you know that Marie Antoinette did not have time to herself, that she was thrown into this society with all these rules she didn’t know, and that her husband was totally awkward.  Seriously, Jason Schwartzman is fantastic as the beyond awkward Louis Auguste (future  Louis XVI).  The movie also does a fine job of making Marie Antoinette a sympathetic character and not some out of touch bimbo, which I appreciate.  I’ll touch on all this in more detail.

Where the movie fails is in context.  It is so focused on Marie Antoinette that it fails to paint a bigger picture for the viewer.  Why did the French Revolution start in the first place?  We get a grand picture painted of the excesses of royalty but never really get a sense of the growing turbulence in the population.  The film ends at a really lovely moment, but: how many of you really know what led to the deaths of the king and queen?  This could have been summed up in an end note, although I would have at least liked to see the attempted escape from the country.  Other inaccuracies that bugged me: the royal couple had not two but three surviving children, one of whom died as a teenager; Louis XVI and one of his brothers were both portly dudes and that could have helped bring out Louis’ awkwardness and almost outsider status; she did not meet Count Fersen at a random masked ball and that affair was probably not held with so little attempt at discretion.  Also, there were three royal aunts, not two.  Although the film defends the erroneous “Let them eat cake” statement I’ll talk about it in more detail.

With that, let’s get started!

The etiquette of Versailles

For someone who only ever sees pictures of Versailles, this part of the movie helps show the grand extravagance of the place as well as the strict rules that everyone had to follow.  Even before Antoinette reaches Versailles and has to the ceremonial handing over where she sheds everything Austrian before entering France officially, the movie is showcasing how precise the French were in all their preparations.  (It should be noted that many other princesses were forced to go through the same kind of process.  Navigating someone to a new country without putting one in front of the other was tricky business.)

Particularly well done, though, are the scenes when Antoinette wakes up in bed and is tended to by a multitude of the ladies.  The first strength of this scene is that royalty were often surrounded by people.  As Fraser says in the biography (which it should be mentioned, the movie is based on) royal people at this time would really have no concept of modern privacy.  You were never alone with your thoughts, and for a dauphine you were not allowed even to dress yourself.  The second part that’s well done is showing that helping the dauphine get dressed is an honor.  The higher the rank you are, the closer you get to the royal person.  Being a lady-in-waiting to a princess or a queen meant that you were close to their person, so these roles always went to the wives of lords.  You would not have a poor servant woman dressing the queen.  She might help dress lower nobility, but certainly not anyone in Versailles.

At Versailles there were a strict set of rules to follow, and if they meant you had to wait as three different ladies entered the room before the correct one could put on your shift, then so be it.  The movie also showcases this well in the scenes of Antoinette and Louis Auguste eating meals together, where they have to be served in a very specific way.  The only thing I would have liked to see here – which I will address in more detail later on – is the fact that life at Versailles was almost like a spectator sport for the less wealthy.  Nearly anyone could waltz onto the premises and see royalty dining.  While those staying at Versailles had to follow strict regulations, the wife of a merchant, for example, could walk in and wander about as she pleased.  The so called “fish wives” of France could even petition the queen without any formality really in place.

Despite this, I thought the movie did a good job showing how someone new to the system would have a strict set of rules to follow and that, often, those rules didn’t seem to make any sort of sense.

So...uh...you wanna...hmm...do I need permission to speak?

Gambling, clothes, extravagant spending

Gambling was not an uncommon way to pass the time.  Marie Antoinette built up her own circle of friends who would spend nights gambling and talking and certainly drinking.  Louis XVI was not very into this kind of lifestyle, but that didn’t mean that he did not spend money.  Everyone who lived in the palace at Versailles spent what we would all consider an exorbitant amount of money on clothes.  For example, Antoinette got about 150,000 livres for her dress expenses (because it is so hard to translate cost throughout time I don’t have an equivalent into today’s money, but even 150,000 dollars would be a lot).  We have some record of the money spent on clothing and fabric:

Bills were sent in for four new pairs of shoes a week, three yards of ribbon daily to tie the royal peignoir (that is, brand-new ribbon) and two brand-new yards of green taffeta daily to cover the basket in which the royal fan and gloves were carried…The extraordinary amount of new outfits order annually – twelve court dresses, twelve riding habits, and so forth and so on – was in part explained by the privileges of her household to help themselves to these garments once discarded but hardly worn.

All of this tied back into the etiquette of the court.  Who needs green taffeta to cover a basket?  The entire royal family was used to spending this way, as Antonia Fraser notes, Louis XVI’s aunts managed to spend 3 million livres in a span of six weeks.  This is mind boggling extravagance.  You can see why the people would grow to resent a royalty they saw overindulging on everything when they didn’t even have the means to buy themselves bread.

It's such a bother that I've had to wear this dress twice now...maybe I'll buy an extra set of diamond earrings this month.

The movie demonstrates this extravagance, although aside from clothes it also focuses on the food and decadence of eating that was going on.  I would have liked some more context so that the viewer is aware this extravagance is a result partly of the way life of Versailles worked and that Antoinette wasn’t the only one doing all the spending.  She wasn’t the first royal to spend more than she needed and she wasn’t the only one with a spending problem.  Another bit I might have liked to see would be her reasons for indulging.  One aspect I think has to do with fitting in and having friends, but one of the reasons Fraser suggests that the Queen threw herself into these gambling circles with friends was to distract herself from her unsatisfactory (or really, non existent) sex life with her husband.

Appearances

I was watching this movie with my mom and she demanded to know how everyone at court wasn’t enormously fat.  Well, there actually were a number of people at court who might be considered portly or even obese.  Louis XVI was certainly a rotund young fellow, even as young as when he and Marie Antoinette were married.  One of his younger brothers, the Comte de Provence, was even fatter than him, and possibly had difficulty consummating his marriage due to his weight.  Members of the Polignac set who were known for being rowdy and witty would indulge in too much and might be overweight.  Perhaps it comes as no surprise to anyone that Hollywood avoided representing characters who weigh too much, but it is worth thinking about.  The portrait of Louis sent to Marie Antoinette was a bit “prettied up” if you will and the figure he cut in person was not as impressive, made even less so by his extreme social awkwardness.

Then again, the movie did not focus much on the attraction factor from the side of the French male royals.  Apparently Louis XV was an extremely handsome fellow (I’m afraid Rip Torn doesn’t make the cut here) and two of his grandsons were a let down.  Louis’ other brother, the Comte d’Artois was considered the most handsome of his brothers and I thought it could have been interesting to see how a handsome and sexually active man would have been viewed much more positively than the overweight and awkward Louis.  His lack of eager desire for sex and his faithfulness to his wife made everyone think he was weird, not admirable.

When I look at old portraits I have a hard time distinguishing who is supposed to be handsome, but I'm guessing this is a cut of Louis XVI that is supposed to enhance his natural qualities.

Popularity and arriving in France

Marie Antoinette was actually extremely popular with the people when she arrived in France.  They liked how she looked, how kind she was and the charities she pursued.  People viewed the young couple as a chance to refresh the French monarchy and give it the life that had started seeping out the older and less popular Louis XV got.  There are some pretty wild accounts.  When she and Louis went to take a stroll out among the people they were unable to move forward or backward for three quarters of an hour as the people pushed in around them.  When she visited the opera and insist everyone applaud, the did so (a moment shown in the movie).  She was on display for everyone to see and people watched her and wrote numerous accounts of her grace, her charm, her beauty.

I think the movie missed out on an opportunity to really display this popularity, how Marie Antoinette moved among the people and how much they loved her.  She attended opera often and threw money and effort into her favorite composer.  At one performance she attended the show was held up for fifteen minutes while the people cried out their adoration of her.

This would serve a stark contrast to later opinion.  A combination of royal spending and the common libels at the time – essentially little comics that would show the Queen in pornographic and despicable situations – began take away the glow of popularity.  She became the symbol for everything that was wrong with the country and a good deal of the hatred which was directed at the royalty as a whole found its way to direct hatred for the Queen.  Her appearance and manners, which were carefully cultivated to be proper and noble, began to appear haughty.  People thought that Marie Antoinette was laughing at them and looking down on them while spending the country into ruin.

I hate flowers! Look at the Queen, holding a flower! Why must she continue to torment us!?

This would lead to the eventual storming at Versailles (a tame version is shown at the end of the film) and her imprisonment and execution.  Even without showing the later stages of the revolution, the change in popularity of Marie Antoinette had a lot to do with the changing political situation in France at the time.  It would have really helped give the mob at the end more significance.  If we’ve seen the people lavish praise and adoration on her, that makes their rioting all the more significant.

“Let Them Eat Cake”

This is a brief episode in the movie and won’t get a great deal more attention here, but I wanted to draw attention to it.  Most people associate this phrase with Marie Antoinette and I think even a lot of those people know that she never said that.  A woman who had compassion for the people and at least some knowledge of poverty would never say anything so mindless.

There are records of this line being tied to other French women before Antoinette, and it is likely just a tidy piece of propaganda to use whenever the French people were having a hard time buying bread.  Which, it seems, was the case often.  The other point this quote highlights is really how the public opinion turned on Marie Antoinette, to think that she was so callous and foolish to think that they could eat pastries if they had no bread.  It was part of the campaign to dehumanize her and make her seem like someone who had no empathy or sympathy.  I think this quote is probably one of the reasons modern perceptions of Marie Antoinette might still be that she was a complete airhead and should have pulled herself together.  Any other woman in her position probably would have fared the same fate, so let’s cut her some slack.

The cake is a lie.

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s children

They had three.  First, a daughter, Maria Teresa in 1778.  Then, a son, Louis Joseph in 1781.  Another son, Louis Charles, in 1785.  She did have a child die, as demonstrated in the movie, but they left out the third child who did survive.  The focus of the film is so tightly wrapped up on Marie Antoinette’s experience maybe they felt that including the drama of the children would be too much.  This would be an argument I don’t understand, though.  Antoinette loved children.  She was the sort of woman who could be a full-time nanny or a daycare provider and love every minute of it.  She lavished attention and affection on other people’s children and on her own.  They were a huge part of her life, which makes sense considering that she waited eight years after she and Louis married to finally have one.

For anyone wondering, the long drama of trying to consummate the marriage while everyone around the couple gossips about the nature of their sexual relationship and Marie Antoinette’s mother writes scolding letters to her is done really well.  It was a long and arduous journey for the couple to finally have complete sex (according to the time) and all that time Marie Antoinette really was in a precarious position.  With no heir, her position was basically worthless.

What do you mean I kiss you on the mouth? Then where does this go? Wait...I...uh...

The story of her children is rather tragic.  The oldest son, Louis Joseph, fell incredibly ill and died before his eighth birthday after staying basically in a country retreat away from court for several years.  With the death of her oldest son and the fact that her daughter seemed to prefer Louis led Marie Antoinette to take solace in her younger son, Louis Charles.  At the time of the mob at Versailles in 1789 Maria Teresa would have been 10 and Louis Charles 4.  I’m guessing those are the children shown in the movie, but considering how the third son is never addressed and I am not convinced Maria Teresa is anything close to 10 in that scene, this part is one of the worst historical inaccuracies.

After they were forced to live in captivity for years, Marie Antoinette would be separated from her son and the guards in charge of him would not only ply him with alcohol (he was about 7 at the time) but lead him to give false testimonies about the abuse he received at the hands of his mother and aunt.  Maria Teresa lived into adulthood and even got married but it would probably be too charitable to say that she led a happy life.

Count Fersen and the supposed affair

It would be fair to say that historians are still debating whether or not Marie Antoinette had a sexual affair with the charming Swedish soldier Count Fersen.  It would also be fair to say that the evidence looks pretty convincing that they probably did have a relationship.

The shortest version of it works like this: Fersen kept a good deal of personal correspondence and journals.  It seems that he nicknamed the Queen as Josephine in his notes, although at times he is probably talking about a different Josephine.  Several times he makes notes that he spent the night with her, using the same language that he did when he wanted to indicate that he had spent the night with a woman and bedded her.

Any rumors that her children were not Louis XVI’s and actually Count Fersen’s is likely crap.  Fersen had a lot of affairs with a lot of women and probably knew how to not get them pregnant.  Furthermore, it would be unfair to claim that Marie Antoinette did not love her husband.  Despite this depth of feeling for Fersen she remained completely dutiful to her husband and stuck with them through threat of death even when people advised her to leave.  I think it’s fair to say that Marie Antoinette could love both her husband and Fersen and might even be fair to say that Fersen showed her what sexual fulfillment could be, which was probably not a byproduct of her marriage.

This man seduced countless women. I'm guessing it's the eyebrows.

While I appreciate including it in the movie, the affair fizzles out and doesn’t go anywhere.  They meet at a masked ball – not true, in real life they saw each other for the first time at an opera and it is highly unlikely they had a love/lust at first sight connection – commence to the lovemaking and then she basically never sees him again.  Fersen was a steady presence in Marie Antoinette’s life and lived near Versailles when he was in France.  He assisted the royal family in their attempted escape from the country.  He didn’t go off to fight in the war and then feature in a few daytime fantasies courtesy of the Queen.  This plotline was not handled with a good deal of grace, particularly the blatant disregard for using any kind of discretion.  When having a sexual dalliance as the Queen can get you charged with treason, I’m pretty sure you try to keep those things more under wraps than making out with the guy in your private garden.

Female Friendships

From a young age, Marie Antoinette knew the value of female friendships.  She was close to her older sister, Charlotte, and when she got to France, Antoinette formed close relationships with other women.  Notably, she developed friendships with the Princess Lamballe, the Duchesse du Polignac, and her husband’s sister, Elizabeth.  Keeping these friends close would eventually get Marie Antoinette blasted in the libels as having lesbian relationships with these women.

This fact is unlikely.  Close friendships worked differently than they do in the modern day.  You might marry a stranger and be put into situation where you are surrounded by people you don’t know.  The solution to find something you can use as a confidant and draw them close to you.  Marie Antoinette could use these women as solace in an unfamiliar place, and to replace the affection that she wasn’t receiving from her husband.  Men and women would interact, but a woman couldn’t be alone with a man the same way she could with other women.  These intense close and personal friendships would help carry Marie Antoinette through.

Believe it or not, most female friendships are not based around a mutual love of shoes.

The movie shows this to a degree.  The Queen is often seen lounging with her friends, but I wished their names would have been said more often.  The Duchesse de Polignac made a stronger impression because her character was more outspoken, but the Princess Lamballe made almost no impression at all.  I can barely remember her and I saw the movie two days ago.  It would have been nice to see them more fleshed out.  Also, what about the omission of Louis XVI’s sister!  Elizabeth was devoted to her brother and to her sister-in-law and there was a very real affection between them.  This would have helped serve to get Louis some more humanity (his awkwardness is brilliant but does start to wear) and get Marie Antoinette another female companion.

I know that the movie steers away from the actual violent events of the Revolution in France, but knowing the Princess Lamballe better gives her fate more emotional weight.  After she was killed by a mob for the crime of being friends with Marie Antoinette they actually put her head on a pike and paraded it outside the tower were the Queen was being kept in hopes that she would be completely demoralized and distraught by it.  Even if you consider a monarchy outdated, that kind of violence paints a lot of the French Revolution and generates a good deal of sympathy for members for the royal family.

What happened in the end

The family would get passed around to various places where they were kept under a strict watch.  As the movie shows, they sent away most of their friends so they could escape the worst of it.  Louis also packed up his aunts and sent them away.  His sister Elizabeth stayed with them.  Their time being kept under watch was not always unpleasant – they had food, they could spend time together, at some points they had open courtyards where they could take walks.  However, the fact that they were essentially imprisoned would put a damper on any easy feelings and as time wore on it became more apparent that the feelings of the people were more violent than anything.

A combination of spending too much as royal living accorded, going into debt by aiding the American Revolution, and excluding the poor voices from government (in addition to other nuances – sorry for the basic version) led the people to think that maybe kings weren’t the best way to go.  Louis was not a forceful personality and often had trouble making decisions, which didn’t help matters.

The family finally decided they needed to escape France if they wanted to avoid death.  They made plans to leave where they were being held in Paris and escape to Montmedy.  The atmosphere at this time was dangerous – Louis’ aunts had recently escaped and this made the people paranoid.  They set up an intricate plan which consisted of changing carriages at various locations and having loyal soldiers look over their progress.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything went wrong.  Progress was delayed so that the men waiting for them thought that they were not coming.  Everything fell behind schedule.  When the family reached the village of Varennes-en-Argonne they didn’t know where to go to get their new horse and carriage.  This long delay and the fact that they were recognized led to their capture and travel back to Paris.  It should be noted that Count Fersen aided the royal family in their attempted escape.

This bit would have been maybe too action based for the movie, but sounds like it would make for a great piece of cinema.  Again, a footnote at the end of the movie would have been useful.

"By the way, everyone in this film dies and their lives end in utter tragedy. SURPRISE."

Louis XVI was executed January 21, 1793.  Marie Antoinette was executed about ten months later on October 16, 1793.  The King had essentially been forced to sign over his power and maybe it was an attempt of the revolutionaries to keep the royal supporters from rising up against them, but both trials feel incredibly unfair and the deaths of the monarchs unnecessary.  Louis Charles died at the age of 10 in 1795.

The events of the Revolution after the royal family left Versailles are dark and violent scenes that would not fit the dreamy tone and atmosphere of the movie, which focuses more on the tranquility of Marie Antoinette’s garden getaway, the extravagance of royal living, and an overall lighthearted approach.  Still, it feels odd to me to create a movie about such a prominent historical figure and leave out some of the most important details of her life.  Marie Antoinette is undoubtedly so well known because of her tragic connection to the French Revolution and it seems unfair the issues of the people and their relationship with her were ignored to fit the larger version of the movie.

It is certainly worth watching to get an idea of what early life at Versailles was like.  The costumes are completely beautiful and the scenery is accurate – after all, Versailles is still standing today.  After the film ended, however, I couldn’t help but wish that the darker parts and hints had been included.  Marie Antoinette ultimately did not lead a sugar coated life and a film about her should not ignore the sadness and violence that would accompany her at the end.

But she's too pretty! Must keep everything pretty!

Sources:

Antonia Fraser. Marie Antoinette: The Journey.  I have to admit that this is the only source I really used for the movie.  As it is the basis for the film and Fraser is a well respected historian, I thought I could get away with it.  The book is nearly 500 pages long.  Cut me some slack.

History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution.  Includes a brief overview of the Revolution, the people and events surrounding it.  This will help you give you some more in depth information than the brief summary included in this article.

For next time!

Anonymous, a tale of intrigue and stupidity about the true identity of Shakespeare.