Saturday, August 18, 2007

Marie Antoinette (2006)

(Movie Review)

In America there has always been an almost unhealthy fascination with Marie Antoinette.

I suspect this is mostly inherited from the British historians and their fascination with the royal family and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Not to mention the British historical fiction writers and the hundreds of trashy historical romances written about Marie Antoinette.

Every story deserves to be told, but often some stories are told at the expense of others. For example in America every Joe Shmoe knows who Marie Antoinette is, but only history geeks know who Robespierre, Marat, or Danton are. Is this a good sign for a democratic country? Not that Robespierre, Marat, or Danton were saints, but then that's really the whole point. Their lives could offer a valuable study of the possible problems inherit in democratic revolutions or republican societies. Wouldn't it be better to focus attention on these stories instead (as the French themselves do when they write novels about the revolution)?

But, I guess Hollywood decided just what the public needed was another sappy story about Marie Antoinette, and so we have this movie.

On the historical side, I thought it was pretty accurate. I know this movie has been slammed for its lack of historical accuracy, but as far as I can tell that's mostly just because of the rock music and anachronistic props.

Granted I'm no expert, but for example I remember reading about how Marie Antoinette used to loose her patience with the long dressing ceremonies in the morning when she would be shivering in the cold as her courtiers would debate proper protocol. And that is faithfully reproduced in this movie.

Being the historical geek I am, I always rush to the internet after watching a movie like this to check out how much of it is true. And as far as I could tell, it checked out pretty well. Some debatable court rumors and gossip were portrayed as fact, but that is always the prerogative of historical fiction.

So adding in the Internet time, I'd consider I got a pretty good history lesson out of this movie. I learned a bit about life at the French Royal court, and some of the rivalries and gossip of the time.

However since this film intentionally stays clear of politics and focuses only on court life, the big question is: how much do I really care about the gossip of Versailles? I'd say the director's assumption that I would stay interested for 2 hours is pushing it a little. The film ends just as Louis and Marie are forcibly escorted to Paris, but in fact they lived for several years afterwords and from a historians perspective, the film ends just as Marie's life is beginning to get interesting. (Or as Shoko exclaimed while we were watching this, "What is the point of making a film about Marie Antoinette and ending it right at the French Revolution?")

Of course Marie Antoinette's lavish spending was one of the causes of the Revolution, and this is hinted at in the movie, but only touched on briefly. I heard one historian say Marie Antoinette was the Imelda Marcos of her time, and I think there's a lot of truth in it, but in this particular film the distinction between Marie's spending and the people's misery could have come through a lot clearer.

What is left then? A portrait of a woman isolated and made miserable amidst all her privilege. It is impossible not to feel a little sorry for Marie Antoinette as an Austrian princess who was married off for political reasons and had to adjust to all the absurdity of Versailles. But on the scale of human suffering, it doesn't really stack up to a lot of the other stories.

Link of the Day
Letter from a GI in Falluja: “This wasn’t a war, it was a massacre”

Marie Antoinette: Movie Review (Scripted)

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