How can you not root for poor, abused, exploited, and misjudged Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola’s fine film biography, “Marie Antoinette”? She’s nothing more than a naïve waif, an exuberant absolutist cheerleader and aesthete, with the charming hobby of playing at being a milk maid and gambling away her nation’s treasury.
It is a peculiarity of our times that historical judgments no longer consist of balanced assessments of all the facts and circumstances of someone’s life. Sofia Coppola does an extravagantly wonderful job displaying the spectacular indulgences of Bourbon court life, and she does a great job, in half the film, in dissecting the nuances of manner and gesture and style in the life of a 15-year-old princess newly introduced to the most dangerous and sophisticated social strata in Europe.
And then, suddenly, she draws back, evades, ignores, and her selectivity becomes transparent. We never see this Marie Antoinette contact royalist factions among the revolutionaries and try to arrange escape, and a counter-revolution, and civil war, all for the purpose of restoring her husband and herself to absolute power. We don’t see soldiers killing unarmed peasants. We don’t see the starving children of peasants, though we hear Marie’s children cry when the mob comes to move the royal family back into the palace in the city.
Marie Antoinette was hardly the monster her contemporary enemies portrayed her as, but she wasn’t this callow, harmless teenager either. And that leads me to the second failing of this film: no young woman, given the power that she had, could have survived court life as long as she did without developing the ability to manage, direct, and command others, not necessarily because she wants to, or because she’s a bully, but because she is royalty in an age that genuinely believed that God had appointed one class of people to scrounge and slave and suffer and die in poverty, and one class of people to collect almost all the wealth they created and rule over them.
We almost never see this Marie Antoinette do what princesses and queens do: order people about, dismiss them, communicate her wishes. We see her frolicking in her lovely, pastoral gardens, and we overhear a few snippets about the outlandish costs, and she cavorts with her attending ladies like a school girl, but Coppola never shows us the Queen of France exercising her will, and the people around her reacting to the immovable force of her preferences, her desires, her tastes.
We see her innocently imitate a milk-maid, but the servants who actually do the work of gardening and maintenance are all cheerful and picturesque.
The process of rehabilitation is easy. No one is a perfect monster, or, as in this case, perfectly trivial. It doesn’t strike me as particularly significant that, once France began to fall apart, we find evidence of Marie Antoinette dressing less extravagantly, and refusing more diamonds, or that she was a decent, loving mother, or that she had her charities.
Or, pity her grace, after her arrest and the death of Louis: “some of the guards going as far as blowing smoke in the ex-queen’s face”.
But it is striking to me how this kind of historical revision seems to overcompensate. Louis XIV was an incredibly incompetent monarch, and France’s ruling class did almost everything possible to bring about a revolution by creating absolutely intolerable conditions for the poor and middle classes, while indulging their own tastes for unbelievable extravagance, and financing a war in America.
And, contrary to “Marie Antoinette”, both Marie and Louis conspired to arrange for an army from Austria to invade France, arrest and kill the revolutionaries, and restore the Bourbons to the thrown. Had she carefully avoided association with the Austrian threats, and the attempt to flee to Varennes, she might have escaped.
There is no excuse for the omission of this central fact about the fate of Marie Antoinette. She didn’t deserve to die– nobody did– but she was not innocent.