My nightly routine during the week, after completing my daily tasks, has included finding some movie to watch and thus review. This typically involves a lot of scrolling. And scrolling. And scrolling. Believe it or not, I have not seen every movie ever made, nor am I particularly interested in all of them. However, in the midst of my thumb swiping on Amazon Prime, I came across Marie Antoinette (2006), a charming little film that I remember fondly from my graduate school days. It is one of those films that uses modern music to set the mood for historical events. Some get annoyed by this, but I felt that it worked. When I first saw it, while I enjoyed it, I dismissed most of it as dramatization. In watching it again, I actually did a bit of research after the fact and found that it is a pretty reasonable portrayal of the court at the Palace of Versailles . . . just before everything goes to pot during the French Revolution.
We are introduced to the title character in Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst) not in France, but in her native Austria before she leaves to marry her betrothed, the future King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). He is not yet the ruler, for that title belongs to his father, King Louis XV (Rip Torn). Early on she meets up with her soon-to-be family in an exchange on the border of the two sovereignties. It involves a ceremony that can only be described as royal, and is meant to solidify the bonds of friendship between France and Austria. Marie is young and bright-eyed, and eager to fulfill her duty. Her husband is disinterested and spends most of his time hunting or researching locks. This complacency extends itself to the bedroom where the first near decade of their marriage goes without consummation. As the future queen of France, and because the matrimony is not complete (and thus the alliance between France and Austria in jeopardy), the deed must be done for everything to be official. Marie takes this seriously, but she approaches it with an admirable dignity. In other words, she does not simply fling herself at her husband. Still, the situation could not be more precarious, and the film suggests that she occupies herself as any rich young woman at any point in time might do: to use more modern parlance, retail therapy. There are other pursuits too. There are balls, the opera, and various parties great and small to wile the days away in their Versailles bubble in the French countryside. Historically speaking, women in her position took on many lovers. One contemporary, Catherine the Great of Russia, was quite profligate on this score. Marie was mostly faithful for her part, but she did have one tryst, that with Count Axel Fersen of Sweden (Jamie Dornan). Nonetheless, after her husband becomes king they get down to the business of making heirs, and thus her position is more or less secured. Still, you cannot say it is without its perils still even after she becomes queen as the one thing you have not seen so far are your ordinary French citizenry. The film does an excellent job of showing how the royal family, particularly Marie, spent money like they had invented it. While they were building their fantasy worlds, the rest of the French population starved, and this of course triggered the French Revolution. We do not see them actually beheaded as they were because that would not be in keeping with the tone of the movie. Rest assured, though, that their final carriage that is the closing shot leads to their demise.
History knows Marie for two things, and Marie Antoinette addresses one of them, which is actually false. She never said “let them eat cake” in response to hearing reports of the destitution of much of her country’s population. The other is her execution. Despite the film correcting this historical error, history is not kind to this figure. You can see why in the movie. Is she a sympathetic character? Difficult to say. One of the more tellings moments is when she opens up her little French hamlet refuge on Versailles grounds, where she can live “simply,” attending to gardens and raising chickens. It borders on the absurd because it is basically a parody of real life, and when Marie’s friends visit it their gasps of interested surprise ring as false as you might expect from privileged people who could care not a bit as to how the other half lives. There is also Marie’s dalliance to consider. On the other hand, she chooses not to placate King Louis XV’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry (Asia Argento), despite the Comtesse being a favorite of the king. Marie has a style and grace to her, and many scholars have credited her with being the brains behind the throne because God knows the hapless King Louis XVI could not have managed completely on his own. Like anything else in life, there are two sides to a story, and this film does a good job, both cinematically and historically, of addressing both of them.
Then again, as Christians we should be more sympathetic to Marie and Marie Antoinette, even though she had extra-marital affairs. We should not condone her cheating on her husband, to be sure. However, if there is one thing the Catholic Church has been clear on for centuries it is that corporal punishment, namely the death penalty, is never warranted. We seek to protect life and redeem it, not destroy it. Marie died at the age of 37. That is quite young, even by late eighteenth century standards. History also tells us that she faced her situation with a nobility owing to somebody of her upbringing, even if she was unrepentant before her revolutionary accusers. We can chalk that one up to her not knowing any better. Spending as she did was what rulers did at that time. They saw it quite literally as a Divine Right. What is clearly a divine right, though, is God’s ability to call us to Him whenever He chooses. Our lives are not our own. Marie’s was cut down before her time.
There are some revealing scenes in Marie Antoinette, but nothing that is not in keeping with its PG-13 rating. It is not exactly a family movie either as children would probably be quite bored with it. The music I mentioned earlier is interesting, and the old man I lived with was surprised (one might say incredulous) when I told him that one of the piano riffs that accompanies one scene was done by Kanye West. Yes, that one, the one that is supposedly running for president. When you think about such things, it almost makes you wish for a time when kings and queens ruled as they did. Almost.