Monday 6 August 2012

Golden Imaginings: why are movies about Marie-Antoinette so bad?

One of my dissertations was on how Marie-Antoinette's reputation has been shaped in the years since her death. I have written about her numerous times. She has appeared as a character in three of my plays. Chapter V of the dissertation was called 'Golden Imaginings,' about how Marie-Antoinette has been portrayed on film. I shacked-up with Marie-Antoinette, when writing fiction and non-fiction. And I feel very protective over her. Like I do with a friend who I know makes the occasional stupid mistake, but who nobody but her friends quite understands. Even a whisper of the phrase 'Let them eat cake' is enough to make me feel blood in my nostrils and the moment anyone implies that they think she deserved to die on the guillotine in 1793, I am going to automatically hate that person for ever. Like all people of my generation, I know that haters go'n hate, but if you think Marie-Antoinette deserved what happened to her then you're either an idiot or you have a chunk of glass where you heart ought to be.

Anyway, I digress. With the new Farewell, My Queen (above) causing quite the stir at film festivals, I thought I'd revisit the interesting, if often frustrating, ways in which the last Queen of France has been immortalised on the silver screen. (Just to clarify - I don't actually think of Marie-Antoinette as a saint, either. I read a pamphlet once where she was compared to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Which seems a bit over the top, tbh.)

Ellen Buddle was the first actress I worked with as Marie-Antoinette in one of my own plays - the first version of The Audacity of Ideas, in 2006. When Ellen first got the part, she knew very little about the character and she delved into a number of biographies to create a breathtakingly good portrayal. A few years later, Ellen and I were discussing Marie-Antoinette again. The second version of Audacity had just been staged, with the lovely Lydia Forte playing Marie-Antoinette, and Ellen and I were talking about some of the play's characters. Having played the Comte d'Artois in both versions, I said that I felt that I could have played him much better now, having matured a bit more as an actor. Ellen said that there were things she would have changed about her performance as Marie-Antoinette. Since I'd always loved her performance as Marie-Antoinette, I was surprised to hear her say that. "I think I made her too interesting," Ellen said, "I think in reality she was a bit, well, bland, to be totally honest. And if I played her again, which I'd love to, I think I'd try and get that across a bit more."

What Ellen said might smack of emotional blasphemy to some of Marie-Antoinette's modern-day adherents. How could one describe the dazzling and then tragic Marie-Antoinette as bland? At first, I instinctively disagreed her, but the more I think about it, the more I think she may be right. In a way. Marie-Antoinette's story is fascinating, but that does not necessarily mean that she was. She was charming, flawlessly well-mannered, graceful, elegant and (as the final few years of her life would show) very, very brave. But, she was no Anne Boleyn or Cleopatra. She had no real intellectual interests and, for most of her life, no political agenda. She was kind to people and (contrary to how she's presented today) particularly so to the poor. But it was the Revolution which made Marie-Antoinette famous for centuries after her death, not her own personality. And I think that's why writers get her so wrong, so often. We can't accept that this theoretically amazing character actually had whole stages of her life which were, alas, quite boring. For the first few years of her married life, she was ignored by her husband's family; for the next few, she escaped that humiliation in a round of big hair, big dresses and even bigger parties, and then there was nearly a decade in which her chief concern was to be a good mother and a good Catholic. Worthy stuff, but hardly fascinating from the point of view of an actress, novelist or playwright.  

Is this why so many of the modern movies about her are so unforgivably average? Because, I mean, let's face it, there hasn't been a really good one since 1938. History fans work themselves up into a tizz of excitement every time a new movie based on Marie-Antoinette's life is announced, but they are nearly always disappointed by the result. How is it possible to take the story of the original "girl who had everything," daughter of an empress and wife of a king, who lived in one of the most magnificent palaces in history, became one of the original fashion icons, surrounded herself with glamorous characters, was unfairly targeted in one of the most savage (and successful) character attacks in history and who ended her life as a victim of one of the most bloody events in European history, and make it all seem so boring?

Maybe part of the problem, though, is that film-makers keep trying to make Marie-Antoinette more interesting than she actually was. Maybe that's why in every new movie that comes out, she is presented as totally different to the one before. The stubborn but charming Marie Antoinette of 1938 (above), the manipulative reactionary of Le Marseillaise, spoiled in Lady Oscar, the deluded self-obsessive of Jefferson in Paris, the heroic fighter of L'Autrichienne, spoiled and shallow in The Affair of the Necklace, a completely blank canvas with Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola, or as a possible lesbian in the French language movie Farewell, My Queen, where Marie-Antoinette was played beautifully by Diane Kruger, who looks uncannily like the real queen.

In fact, my guess is that part of the problem is that Marie-Antoinette is just not leading lady material, but she looks like it on paper. When she was alive, she was so surrounded by servants and etiquette that she was removed, both literally and figuratively, from the drama of every-day life. The distance put between her and the rest of humanity still survives. It is difficult to take the story of Marie-Antoinette from fourteen to thirty-seven and keep an audience wholly invested in it. What Marie-Antoinette thought, or felt, we know from her private letters, but those feelings were seldom on public display and for about fifteen years of her life, her daily routine hardly changed at all. If a dramatist isn't careful, it means that both his leading character and the world she lives in can come across as a bit boring. Lovely to look at, but dull. 

Like I said, a successful biopic was pulled off in 1938, with Norma Shearer in the title role, but that's largely because the film makers were quite prepared to ditch any bits of history that proved too difficult for the audience to understand and to focus instead on accurately conveying Marie-Antoinette's personality. In 1938, Marie-Antoinette is the star, not the era she lived in and by making her so sympathetic, they make the film interesting. It's all lots of gasping, melodrama and tears, but given how highly-strung the 18th century was, it's probably not a million miles away from the truth. In 2006, another biopic, the beautiful Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst as the eponymous queen, flopped because so few people could follow it. Or care about it. Coppola's Marie-Antoinette is an every girl. She's any girl in modern Britain or America who happened to wake up one morning and find themselves a princess. Dunst's Marie-Antoinette is rich, lonely and famous, but she is not royal. There is no sense of the crushing weight of royal etiquette, of the Catholic religion or of the expectations of monarchy - all of which Marie-Antoinette lived her life surrounded by. The film was stunning, the acting was very good, but 2006's Marie Antoinette is a celluloid testament to just how problematic having Marie-Antoinette as your lead can be.

Where Marie-Antoinette can pack a punch as a phenomenal character is when she's allowed to be "best supporting actress" or even a memorable cameo. With limited, or reduced, screen-time, Marie-Antoinette's grace and the unique position she found herself in can be dramatic gold. The only moments of the otherwise-idiotic Affair of the Necklace are the ones in which Joely Richardson appears as Marie-Antoinette (below). Yes, the character is about as three-dimensional as a piece of cardboard, but Richardson is so good, and the queen's position so unenviable, that her ten minutes on screen are worth more than everything else. 

I must have realised this problem with Marie-Antoinette, unconsciously, a long time ago. I never made her the lead female in any play I had her in. It was always Gabrielle de Polignac. In The Wages of Beauty, which I'm working on at the moment, Marie-Antoinette appears frequently, but each time she appears, her life has moved on slightly. It's the story of Gabrielle's life, in which the Queen is Gabrielle's main focus, but not necessarily the audience's. In Act I, Marie-Antoinette is twenty-two years-old and it's the era of towering head-dresses, glamorous ball-gowns and no babies. She is bored, unhappy, exhausted and she feels pressure from all sides. By the time she returns, in Act II, she has become a mother. She has mellowed, she is happier, more poised and more confident in herself. And sassier, too. I like it when Marie-Antoinette discovers her backbone. She has the confidence to stand-up for herself. She expects to be obeyed now, rather than simply pandered to. Writing that is interesting; I enjoy it and there is a unique challenge in writing Marie-Antoinette that I've never experienced with another historical character. In fact, I love writing her, but it's only by making peace with the fact that what's interesting about her in a non-fiction biography won't necessarily be interesting to an audience. Or comprehensible. In Wages of Beauty, Marie-Antoinette's story is interesting (I hope!) because you see her evolution at its major stages. Ironically for someone who spent her whole life as the star performer, today Marie-Antoinette's best place is as an "also starring." 

What happened to Marie-Antoinette still has the power to shock and move us - if we can only allow ourselves to ditch the ludicrous stereotype of her. She is a great part to play and to write; it's a challenge to bring to life an essentially good woman, who partied as a teenager, loved as a mother and then ended her life in an appallingly unfair and violent way. With Marie-Antoinette, less is more. Audiences can, and will, find her interesting because of the light touches of detachment and effortless ease with which she lived her life in the years before the Revolution. But not if that's all they see for two and a half hours. The real Marie-Antoinette's personality probably wasn't as interesting as the sly minxes of Affair of the Necklace or Jefferson in Paris, or of the enigmatic and emotionally-unstable dilettante seen in Farewell, My Queen, but given the right movie, the right play and the right actress, I think she could still have the power to fascinate and dazzle.


  1. I love this! You are so witty!

  2. Thank you! I love it! xxoo What contemporary people don't get about Marie-Antoinette is that, like the other Habsburgs, living and deceased, she dazzled because she was royal. She was every inch an Archduchess of Austria and Most Christian Queen. She had the charm to give the impression that she had forgotten it while assuring that no one who saw her would EVER forget who and what she was. Her destiny and lineage was instilled in her as part of her being before she could walk or talk. Norma, being the decent actress that she was, was able to capture that quality.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head - people seem to be more fascinated with the image of Marie Antoinette, rather than the woman herself. They expect her life, like those in fairytales, to be continually interesting and exciting, forgetting entirely that Marie Antoinette was a person, first and foremost, and that Marie Antoinette the PERSON will not fulfill the fantasy of Marie Antoinette the IMAGE.

    I often imagine real life royals, even in the modern age, reading fairytales, and laughing themselves sick over what regular people seem to think their lives are like.

    "No, really? The Prince on the Steed, slaying dragons? I had a hard time getting that stupid spider a week ago."
    "Glass slippers? Ouch!"
    "I wish I had the power to enforce 'Off With Their Heads!' That would take care of a lot of that tabloid nonsense."

  4. A portrayal that might put a smile on your face -- if it's ever performed again -- is in John Corigliano's opera "The Ghosts Of Versailles," where Marie-Antoinette is the lead soprano role. The ghost of the queen would like her head re-attached, but that's not going to happen, at least without some interference from some of Pierre Beaumarchais' most famous characters . . . NYC's Metropolitan Opera has video of a performance from the 1990's with Teresa Stratas on their website, but it is a subscription service . . .

  5. Do you have any idea when your play will be finished?

  6. It has been for a few years now. A few extracts were recently staged in Belfast and a two productions were in Oxford in 2006 and 2008.

  7. Is that the Wages of Beauty play that you had mentioned? I thought that the Audacity of Ideas was performed at those times? I attended two performances (they were lovely, by the way!).

  8. Thank you very much. It was such a while ago that we did the full Audacity, although we did some extracts in Belfast recently (January 2013.) It was nice to re-visit it. I've actually taken a break from "Wages of Beauty" at the moment - apologies for misreading your earlier query about it. I'd like to get it finished by the end of the summer, although I've a few projects that are due for work, which is why I'm taking a break as I don't want to rush it.


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