I love incorporating historical fiction and movies into our homeschool studies. I think they add relevance and stimulate interesting discussion – plus they’re just fun! Izzy and I have been studying the French Revolution and there is no person as closely associated with this time period as Marie Antoinette. Not only that, but she is one of the most controversial historical figures of all time (male or female). Thankfully, that means there is no end of material about her available to explore.
We are currently reading a young adult historical fiction novel called The Lacemaker and the Princess which I hope to review in more detail later, but basically it is a fictional story set in Versailles at the time of the French Revolution. We’re both enjoying reading about all the details of palace life so much that I thought it would be fun to experience a visual representation as well. I had seen this 2006 film version before, but did a quick double check on Common Sense Media re: it’s suitability. They recommend it for 14 and up and since they are usually a bit more conservative than I am, we decided to give it a go with my just-turned-13-year-old. I’m so glad I did! Izzy enjoyed it immensely and I got a lot more out of my second viewing than my first.
Not surprisingly, considering it’s subject matter, this is a pretty divisive and controversial film. It was purportedly booed at the Cannes Film Festival and several notable reviewers have ripped it to shreds. On the other hand, there are critics who have given it high praise. The main points of contention seem to be a) it’s anachronistic use of music, dialogue and fashion and b) it’s overly sensitive treatment of the doomed queen. You either love it or you don’t. I love it.
Sophia Coppola, the film’s director, is giving us a human glimpse into the life of a girl (Marie Antoinette was only 14 when she arrived in France to marry Louis) who attempted to carve out some kind of life and meaning in the opressive, gilded cage of palace life. I love historical films and delight in their period details, but they can sometimes be distancing with characters who have an air old-fashioned ‘otherness’. Coppola’s purpose here is to show us that, during her life and times, Marie was a thoroughly modern girl. The music she listened to, the clothes she wore, the jokes she shared with her friends were all cutting edge – hence the purposeful anachronism.
I think it’s incredibly dull, not to mention wildly unrealistic, to expect that historical films be 100% historically accurate. I say watch a documentary if that’s what you’re after. Furthermore, history isn’t an open and shut case of fact vs. fiction. It’s full of humans and humans are messy and complicated and contradictory. Was Marie a cruel, despotic ruler or a silly, naïve girl in the wrong place at the wrong time? We’ll never really know. Films offer us a different kind of truth than mere facts can convey. Here we see how insularity can have disastrous consequences.
I think this film is so effective in showing how utterly stultifying court life probably was. Long before Marie arrived at Versailles, a complicated web of etiquette was put in place which made the royals virtual prisoners to rigid protocol. From the time she woke up until she time she went to bed, Marie was under the most intense scrutiny with courtiers constantly angling for attention and favors. It’s easy to see why she chose to retreat to her little ‘hamlet’ and play foolish games with only her closest friends. And yet this tiny scrap of freedom cost her greatly. To the peasants, it seemed that her little games were mocking their lives. To the nobles, it seemed that she was shirking centuries of royal obligations.
I also like how the relationship between Louis and Marie blossoms in the film. Theirs is never a great love affair, but it does grow from stilted and awkward to true affection and respect. It is said that Louis XVI was the first French king in over 200 years to not take a mistress. This seems like it would possibly endear Marie to the people – that they would be impressed that the king was satisfied with her alone – but, again, this defied longstanding expectations. The people almost *needed* the king to have a mistress. It simply wasn’t proper for one woman to have that much power. A mistress was also an excellent scapegoat, an outlet for frustrations, an easy target for mockery and derision. And so, lacking a mistress, Marie became the unwitting object of the nation’s scorn.
Another criticism is that the film is too slow and that nothing of import actually happens. We only see the day to day monotony of royal life; we never get to see all the suffering and human drama that fueled the revolution. I say this is absolutely true, but that it’s actually a strength of the film. Again, the intent of the film is to paint an intimate human portrait, not to be a comprehensive chronicle of the French Revolution. Louis and Marie were completely walled-off from reality and so, for two hours, is the audience.
Finally, I think the age and gender of the protagonist plays a subtle role in some of the criticism of this film. There are few demographics more belittled and dismissed than adolescent and teen girls. Try to think about the last time you heard someone say something positive about this group as a whole. People roll their eyes and talk about their cattiness, their sassiness, their naiveté, their shallowness. When teen girls like something it’s often dismissed as frivolous and silly. The term ‘boy band’ is most certainly a pejorative and its members can only achieve true respect when their fanbase expands beyond the teen girls who made them famous. Traditionally feminine interests – shopping, fashion, romance, crafting, etc. – aren’t serious pursuits and therefore unworthy of serious attention. And yet teen girls actually hold a fair amount of power in our society as the ultimate trend setters and purveyors of pop culture. Think about it – who helped make the Beatles into worldwide phenomena? (The Beatles are taken seriously today because of the older, usually male, critics who tell us they are artists worthy of our respect. The intense emotional response that they elicited from teen girls is dismissed as hysteria.) Teen girls even change the way we communicate. Valley Girl slang of the 80s and text speech were either invented or first adopted by teen girls before they spread like wildfire. Sometimes I think this very power makes people uncomfortable and resentful. Thankfully, no one has to worry about losing their heads over it these days.
In the end, I find this movie fascinating – a visual feast, as well as moving and endlessly thought provoking. I feel like I could watch it again and again and get something different from it each time.
***I feel that I should clarify that I am no fan of monarchy. I do find royalty fascinating on some level, but I would *never* want to live under that form of government. I just think that sometimes we dehumanize historical figures. (Heck, I even have a little Marie Antionette figure in which you press a button and her head pops off.) We either lionize or demonize them, but I find their common humanity to be far more compelling than the myths we tell about them. I 100% acknowledge that the royals and the nobles were responsible for a great deal of suffering and that things had to change. However, I don’t agree with the very ugly path the revolution took. I find it appalling that a woman were thrown in the streets to be literally torn apart by angry mobs (this happened to Marie’s closest friend and confidant). I don’t think that Marie deserved to be publicly and falsely accused of molesting her son – a confession that was coerced from a terrified (and possibly brutalized) little boy.