Reprint (sort of): Paris when it giggles

So I finally got around to watching Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the tragic Last Queen of France as an…um…an 18th-century version of a 21st-century Paris, is the best way I can describe it. This would possibly be a good time to reiterate that the French Revolution has been a hobby of mine for about twenty years now, which as far as I can tell puts me way out of the target demographic.

See, the thing is, this lady was the, y’know, Queen and stuff. That’s the reason people want to make a movie about her in the first place, 200-odd years later. Meaning you can’t tell the story only from her POV, as though she were Jane Private Citizen, accountable only to herself; it doesn’t work. Or perhaps it does…just not solely as a series of Uplifting Shopping Montages. Set to I Want Candy, yet. Accompanied by endless shots of Antoinette and her pastel posse biting into luscious – wait for it – cakes. I think I’d be truly miffed on Coppola’s audience’s behalf if I hadn’t watched Clueless: The Series one too many times.

Yes, it’s tragic that this little girl was used and abused – more tragic than I think the average child of the millennium may have the ability to grasp. The overwhelming odds against Grand Duchess Maria Antonia’s story ending happily were first spiked by her mother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa – the lady who really deserves the movie, were there justice. A warrior princess in every sense, she spent eight years past her father’s death beating back all claimants to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Then she made a passionate love match with the dashing Duke of Lorraine – you could tell, because she gave him sixteen mostly healthy children to play Alliance Roulette with, of which Antonia was #15.

Come to think of it, daddy Duke must’ve been pretty damn legendary himself, given that he somehow found time for a bit on the side to boot; and he was so charming that when his wife found out, she took it out not on him but on the moral climate that obviously had nurtured the vice. Yep, it was morality police ahoy! for Vienna – the capital that later gave the world the waltz, so you can see how totally depraved a society the Empress had to battle here. Rumour had it she herself donned a disguise and patrolled the streets at night (especially those nights the Duke wasn’t home, nudge nudge wink) even chasing her subjects down in their own bedrooms to slap the occupants with – a warrant, you perverts. Geez.

…Let’s see, where was I? Oh, yes. Antonia, button-cute though she might have been, wasn’t even remotely close to the most exciting member of this menage. Remind me to tell you about her big brother Joseph II sometime – his lovely, clever, noble first wife developed a raging crush on his sister, then died more or less of guilt. Forced to marry again by Mom, Joseph chose one of two notoriously ugly but strategically important princesses because ‘I hear she at least has fine breasts.’ Which she, um, didn’t, forcing him to have the common balcony between the marital suites partitioned…

…Sorry. Anyhoo, yeah, Antonia, sweet kid. About twelve as our story opens. A little fluffle-headed, maybe, interested mostly in her foofy dogs and private theatricals, but then again aren’t most preteen girls? (The Duchess thingy didn’t hurt, either. When she didn’t do her homework, her governess just wrote it out for the little girl to trace.) Someday, of course, she was going to have to face up to responsibility, ie. marry a prince and move far away – but hey, she was way down on a long list, that was awhile off yet.

Whoops. Best-laid plans and all that. The chain of family tragedies that ended up transforming unimportant little Maria Antoinia into Marie Antoinette, future Queen of the most important court in the Western world, are too long and involved for even me to get into here…suffice it to say that by the time Empress Maria Theresa realised her adored little airhead, who could barely write her name in her own language, was the key to the entire newly-minted Franco-Germanic alliance, there wasn’t a lot of time to get her whipped into shape. Couple dancing-masters, couple hairdressers, and over the border she went.

Enter: the groom. Dauphin Louis, grandson of Louis XV. In modern terms, the Dauphin was what we would call a ‘geek’. Had Star Wars RPGs been available in the 18th century, he would undoubtedly have made Grand Master Jedi Padawan in a walkover…as it was, he was a nice kind of lumpy sort of teenage guy who liked to study maps, make locks and just generally hang around helping out when the palace was being renovated. (Which was a lot less than it needed to be, believe you me. Pretty much everybody was allowed into the fabled halls of Versailles, provided they had a sword – and those were for rent at the castle gates. Plumbing? Don’t ask.)

It wasn’t all Louis’ fault, really. Especially not the part where his parents ingrained their prejudices against Germans firmly in his obedient little brain – in a nice touch, adjuring him never to marry one just before dying. And especially can he not be blamed for all the time he spent locked in a room with his dying saintly genius older brother, who putatively needed a ‘companion’ and in practice spent all his time lecturing Louis on how everybody should be prepared for the grave – taking him for a model – because we never know who’s next, yada-yada-yada-medieval-morbidity-cakes.

Anyway, as you can imagine, all this left the poor guy a trifle, uh, unprepared to deal with being handed a winsome charmer of a Grand Duchess and told to get busy for the glory of France. When the notorious old King told his grandson at the wedding dinner not to eat too much, as he had ‘work to do tonight’, the response pretty much says it all: “Oh, I always sleep better after a good meal.”

So no-one can really blame a confused, miserable, homesick teenage girl for taking the easy way out, pushing court etiquette she didn’t understand aside as best she could, the better to indulge in whatever else would distract her from the situation at hand – and this was France at its decadent height, there were a lot of distractions available, on a scale that might make even Lindsay or Lauren’s eyes widen. When Antoinette’s little son relieved himself in a corner of the throne room, he inspired a fashionable colour called caca Dauphin.

It’s interesting how familiar Marie Antoinette’s story actually is, how easy it would be to relate to, were you the daughter of a notorious 20th-century Hollywood legend – and thus therein lies most of what’s good about the film (what I think Roger Ebert was referring to when he spoke of its ‘fragile charm’). Antoinette wasn’t really particularly stupid, and she didn’t really indulge (or spend) much more than everybody else on her social scene…she was just a girl who’d been shoved into a fairy-tale, complete with palaces and silk gowns and diamonds and a bevy of servants to cater to her every whim.

At that, she carried herself with far more tact and taste than most privileged party girls; no overt lovers, merely a certain…indiscretion in her choice of companions; no snarky bons mots about cake, just an (admittedly ridiculously expensive) passion for beautiful places and things. She and Louis the amateur locksmith would in fact have made an ideal minor nobleman and his lady, she the leader of fashion lounging in her salon, he engrossed in the latest scientific discovery of the age.

The real difference here, though, is that in the end all that grrl-power had history-altering consequences. She had no idea how to rise above the fairy-tale – but she was the Queen of a nation that was rapidly learning to question royalty’s place in the grand scheme of things, so it was either that or the guillotine. That’d make a fascinating flick for the 10-14 set, wouldn’t it now? Sort of a companion piece to Paris Goes to Jail.

But Coppola either can’t or won’t give us that context. There’s no moral weight for Antoinette to be contrasted against, no hint of the gilded machine, powered by privileges and favours, that Louis XIV, the Sun King, had set in motion to ensure the power and glory of France revolved around the monarch – so successfully his successors were helpless to prevent France from falling to pieces  only a century or so later.
By then there was a massive web of ugly realpolitik lying just below the surface of the glitter – and it trapped Queen Marie Antoinette as easily as a spider does a gnat. Humoured her for awhile, so long as she was clueless and charming and thus of use in stifling their boredom as much as hers; but ultimately, and unhesitatingly, tossed her to the wolves to save itself. The film-makers evidently understand that Marie Antoinette was the hated symbol of the court’s overall corruption; they do not know or apparently care why.

This was a society so lost to anything resembling the ability to save itself that the Grand Almoner, Cardinal Louis de Rohan, representative of one of the oldest noble houses de France, found himself enmeshed by a hypnotist and his con gang. In a scandal that fascinated the nation – for all the wrong reasons, where the prestige of the Crown was concerned – he revealed how he’d been duped by a prostitute hired to impersonate the Queen, who’d met him in the palace gardens at night and given him a single rose, the better to convince him to buy a massive diamond necklace on her credit and give it to the gang posing as her go-betweens. (If you ever run across a reference to the Diamond Necklace Affair, that’s it in a nutshell. Honest.)

In Coppola’s Saturday-morning take on Versailles, by contrast – sorry, yes, this is still a movie review – everything is bright and shiny and polished. Ladies-in-waiting whose tongues in real life flayed the monarchy to the bone are comic meanies easily vanquished by an Uplifting Makeover Montage.
Even the DuBarry, notorious symbol of the legendary sexual appetites that were Louis XV’s particular contribution to the downfall of the monarchy, is reduced to a little slap-and-tickle. Wearing scarlet, natch. (“Nawbuddy treats me like a lady innis place!” she whines.) Every once in awhile we cut to Louis XVI blabbing on about finances or discontent or some such, but need we even remind the audience that he’s, like, a total loser anyway, so who cares.

It’s all fun, fun, fun…until the nation takes their palace away, and whoops! it turns out to have been a Very Special Episode all along. See, she’s learned that riches can’t buy you happiness and peace, no matter how hard you try! Like, hel-lo! Is that deep or what?

Doesn’t help any of this that Kirsten Dunst either cannot act or is delivering the Method performance of a lifetime. Granted, it’s hard to argue that patient boredom isn’t the correct response to participation in a scene during which Bow Wow Wow’s cover of Fools Rush In plays over shots of her returning in the royal carriage at dawn, dreaming of her handsome lover. Still, though, the central casting is another stylistic choice that breaks down when confronted with RL; this little girl wasn’t a Mouseketeer made good, she was a Grand Duchess, and a famously appealing one at that. These people believed themselves the favoured of God, quite literally. I don’t think even the Hilton family’s got that far just yet.

That same lack of commitment deflates the whole production. Jason Schwartzbaum and a bevy of familiar character actors do their level best to at least be earnest about it all, but unfortunately this movie doesn’t even have the wit to give them their best RL lines, like the wedding-night vignette above. (Or Emperor Joseph, asked his opinion of one of his sister’s famous updos on a visit: “I think it over-fragile to carry a crown.” Etc. Inexplicably in a film so committed to the sitcom format, all this material is ignored.)

I dunno. There’s a moment in the ‘making-of’ feature (nestled in amongst all the standard tributes to ‘finding the real person behind the legend) where Schwartzbaum, I think, complains that most historical films are ‘stiff and sepia’. Can’t argue with him there…except that replacing it with pastels doesn’t get the job done, either. Britney – and Amanda, and Hilary and Lindsay and Paris – have already illustrated that one far more colourfully and convincingly.

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