Marie Antoinette, the Upspeak Version
Marie Antoinette, the Upspeak Version
Eventually, in our celebrity-driven culture--in which it doesn't matter what someone's done, or even if they've ever done anything as long as they're famous--it was inevitable someone would apply this outlook to history. The result is Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a film in which no one troubles for a moment with any of the extraordinary events the queen was dragged into. This film, instead, is a profile of a celeb, as if the filmmakers really wanted to do Paris Hilton but someone else owned the rights.
If the makers of this film were asked about George Washington, they'd say, "Oh, he's so, like, mega. He must have such a cool publicist because he's on bank notes and everything. And, like, he's done the whole Constitution thing, so now he should do something more kinky, like a video with Christina Aguilera."
Not once does this film show life outside the royal court. Because who wants to know about loser peasants and slaves who are, like, nobodies. You get an idea of the approach from an interview with Kirsten Dunst, who played the queen of France, in which she said of her character, "All she really wanted to do was go to Paris and visit the opera and probably be like anybody on the street." Because that was what life was like for anybody on the street at the time--opera, opera, opera. Maybe, when she was told the people had no bread, what she actually said was, "Then let them attend The Marriage of Figaro. If they go to the opening night there'll be waiters wandering around with canapes--by the time their carriage arrives they'll be stuffed."
The outcome is a remarkable achievement, in that it portrays Marie-Antoinette's life as relentlessly tedious. Even a royalist account that took notice of the events she became embroiled in would have been compelling. For here was a woman who, having been forced as a teenager to marry an heir to the throne she'd never met, became a despised symbol of the monarchy. While thousands starved, her allowance for clothes and jewelry was more than 1,000 times greater than the annual average income. And the discontent that surrounded her developed into a quest for a new method of running the world, in which prominent figures would be chosen on merit rather than by family name.
Against this revolution, Marie-Antoinette fought obstinately for the divine right of kings. She moved away from the mob to Versailles, was forced back to Paris, then tried to escape with the king, while dressed as a Russian in a stagecoach arranged by her Swedish lover, before being captured by a postmaster. She secretly helped foreign armies invade her country while she was still queen, was imprisoned, falsely accused of sexually abusing her own son and sentenced to the guillotine. But all that's ignored, as if the makers of this film said, "Yes, but the main thing is, her dresses were a lovely rich shade of crimson." If this is the way history is to be presented, soon the answer to an exam question "What was the Battle of Gettysburg?" will be "Light brown with a shade of pastel green."
This isn't to suggest Marie-Antoinette's personal plight shouldn't be examined, or even sympathized with. As a teenage bride she was blamed for her dopey husband's inability to get her pregnant. Following a man-to-man discussion between the king and his brother-in-law, Joseph the Second, Joseph wrote, "The King has strong perfectly satisfactory erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating and bids good night.... If only I could have been there! I could have seen to it. The King of France would have been whipped so that he would have ejaculated out of sheer rage like a donkey." Which suggests it's just as well Joseph the Second was never asked to write an advice article in a men's magazine.
But even the brutality of this ordeal is diluted and overcome with some gentle coaxing, as if the Royal Court were an episode of Friends. And although the absurdities of the stifling royal protocol are portrayed in some detail, the effect is ruined because everyone reacts with modern American characteristics, for example pulling a face that says, "Huh, whatever." So you wonder whether the whole thing was made by the Disney Channel. Maybe there's a deleted scene in which Marie-Antoinette goes out to the street to meet the people and says, "You know, I've been thinking and maybe you're right, I have been a little extravagant. I guess I was just so wrapped up in stuff like castles and diamonds, I kinda forgot what was really important." And the people say, "Hey, and we forgot that true friends stick together, even if one of you helps to organize an army to kill all the others." Then they all hug and go to a patisserie for some cake.
It probably doesn't matter much if someone makes a dreadful film, but it's alarming that the past is becoming seen, like the present, as a place in which the most important thing of all is who's famous. Perhaps the next project will explore the love affair between Eva Braun and Hitler, but without spoiling it by raising side issues such as war and fascism.
The French Revolution is one of the most astonishing stories in history, in which peasants, postmasters, slaves and washerwomen overturned a regime that believed it was sanctioned by God to rule forever. It stirred a million astonishing personal stories, so to create a film set in its heart that's as dull as this is a triumph. It's achieved because the only time there's even a reference to the outside world is when the Versailles Palace is besieged by a mob. Even then you hear them but don't see them, and I started to hallucinate that they'd charge in, the king would bellow, "What do you want?" and the mob would scream, "We demand an immediate and total end to this film. In the name of all citizens, let the audience go free."
Mark Steel is the author of the forthcoming Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution, published by Haymarket Books. He is a regular columnist for The Independent and is the host of a regular history series on BBC television.