By Donna Mills
A couple of weeks ago, I inaugurated the first meeting of my informal "Mom's Movie Club" by talking a girlfriend into taking in a Friday matinee. The film was "Marie Antoinette," Sofia Coppola's controversial biopic of the French queen, which was famously booed when it premiered at Cannes.
The film has gotten mixed reviews here, but my friend and I both loved it for the beautiful scenes, the colorful costumes and the way it made a figure from the unrelatable past truly contemporary (yes, we even applauded Coppola's decision to set the story to a soundtrack of New Wave/Romantic tunes from the 1980's).
But what really struck me about seeing the film was how little I knew about Antoinette -- other than "Let them eat cake" and that she was ultimately beheaded. (And since it turns out she never said the thing about the cake, I really did know next to nothing!)
Of course, I took World History -- way back in the 8th grade -- and remember reading a few paragraphs in my text on the French Revolution. I knew it was chaotic and that most of the French aristocracy were declared enemies of the new state and sentenced to death. And that's about it.
So I decided to pick up a copy of "Marie Antoinette," Lady Antonia Fraser's biography, which was the source for Coppola's film. It's a scholarly work, full of footnotes and references to countless letters, journals and other first-hand accounts painstakingly researched by Lady Fraser, a veteran biographer of mostly royal subjects (14 in all, beginning with Mary, Queen of Scots, published in 1969). Lady Fraser also thoughtfully includes a map of 18th century Europe, a Bourbon family tree and lots and lots of reproductions of paintings and artifacts depicting Antoinette and her family).
But "scholarly" is not synonymous with "dry." Antoinette's life reads like a contemporary romance novel, at least in the first two sections of the book, which is the portion Coppola covered faithfully in her film. But as movie adaptations must use a kind of visual shorthand, a lot of detail was lost.
In the book, I discovered that Antoinette was the 15th of 16 children borne by Maria Theresa, the formidable Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. (Her other titles were Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia). She is another historic figure who would make a wonderful subject for a film, a surprisingly contemporary woman who worked tirelessly, even taking paperwork to bed after giving birth to little Maria Antonia (her Austrian name), who was promised in marriage to the heir to the French throne only after two older sisters were married off to monarchs of other nations.
The film version of Antoinette's life shows her bewilderment when she is sent off to Versailles at the age of 14 to marry the 15-year-old Dauphin Louis, a boy she had never met. Fraser paints a picture of a world where transportation is long and difficult; communication is far from instant; and marriage to a prince the next kingdom over means being cut off from the rest of your family perhaps for the rest of your life. Antoinette never saw her mother again.
She found herself in a strange country, with strange ways and a xenophobic distrust of their new Dauphine (who was referred to as L'Autrichienne -- "the Austrian bitch" -- long before her arrival).
One of the more amusing scenes in the film shows the young Dauphine's embarrassment on her wedding night –- a non-event made painfully public because half the court was sitting in their bedchamber watching! The marriage wasn't consummated for another seven years, a period when poor Antoinette had to deal with her mother's pointed reminders that her position in France would not be secure until she produced a male heir to the throne.
Today's tabloid gossip culture has nothing on the 18th century. The courtiers knew everything that went on (or didn't) between the young royal couple and they spent endless time talking about it and speculating. Worse were the publishers of pamphlets (called libelles) that depicted the Queen as the star of pornographic fantasies. These were so widespread that they became accepted as truth and are the source of much of Antoinette's bad reputation today.
The film "Marie Antoinette" ends with the French people storming Versailles and taking the royal family prisoner. This was a good decision, enabling movie-goers to leave the theater with the memory of the beautiful pink imagery of the early days of Antoinette's reign. The years that followed marked a grim descent into hell, a tumultuous period that was too harsh to describe accurately in that old text I read in middle school.
The King and Queen continued to hope for a peaceful resolution. Fraser writes about this period so well that I found myself believing that Antoinette might escape and survive, even though I knew very well how her story would end. Bu I hadn't known the details: the emotional torture that was wreaked upon the family, or that her son would be taken away from her and coached to testify that she was a child molester (one of the allegations in those libelous libelles). She performed well on trial, even though her attorneys had little time to prepare, and ended her testimony feeling that she had acquitted herself well. Unfortunately, the verdict had been decided upon long before the trial had begun; the politicians had promised the people "the head of Antoinette" and they were determined to deliver.
I finished the book feeling sad for this young girl who grew into a tragic figure. From the day she was born to the day of her execution, she was a political pawn. And for all the ills of our 21st century society, I am grateful to be living here and now.
Donna is a San Fernando Valley wife and mother.