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Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

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Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette"
Image credit: Columbia Pictures

For history buffs who are familiar with how European royal families intermarried in order to seal political alliances, the story of Marie Antoinette shouldn’t come as a shock. That was how they did things back then. Children who had no choice were promised to children of other countries’ rulers and royal houses achieved some sort of peace.

Marie Antoinette’s story tells us about Europe at the height of its might and the obsession of European monarchies to hang on to power and wealth, and why their downfall was inevitable.

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (based on the book by Antonia Fraser which I have not read) was not very different from the woman portrayed in Victoria Holt’s “The Queen’s Confession” which I read back in college.

While I will not say that the film or Holt’s book seek to justify Marie Antoinette’s frivolous life in the midst of poverty and uprising in France, I will say that there is a lot of significance to the fact that Marie Antoinette was betrothed to a total stranger and sent off to a foreign land when she was 14, married at 15 and lived among strangers and scheming politicians, courtesans and power grabbers until her death by execution at 30.

Kirsten Dunst was a revelation in the film. Terribly miscast (for me, at least) as MJ in the Spiderman movies, Marie Antoinette is her best film since Interview with the Vampire in 1994. She could express with a wan smile her resignation to the inevitability of political intrigue, she was flirtatious in her innocence, she was the tormented young wife who had to bear the pressure of producing an heir to the throne to secure her own place in the French court even as she did every trick taught her as a woman to get her husband to sleep with her.

Marie Antoinette’s desire to leave the convoluted French court was wonderfully conveyed when, soon after building Le Petit Trianon, she dressed herself as a milkmaid and frolicked on the grass, gathering flowers, milking the cow… Of course, the simple life was staged and the milkmaid’s chores that Marie Antoinette performed consisted of mere play acting as all the servants were there for her every need. Hence, in a way, the pretend world she created made her pathetic and infuriating at the same time.

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette"
Image credit: Columbia Pictures

All these desires and longings, all these emotions and childish frivolities, Kirsten Dunst portrayed with such simple innocence that people ruled by emotions would probably find Marie Antoinette a victim of history rather than the hedonistic and callous woman she had often been made out to be. One curious note is that, in the film, Marie Antoinette categorically denied having said, “Let them eat cake.” In most biographies, whether or not she really said those words is neither confirmed nor denied but, often, treated as the subject of vagueness and debate.

Another curious thing was that, in the film, Marie Antoinette was still as svelte as a 14-year-old when Versailles fell and the royal family was taken as prisoners. According to history, Marie Antoinette was a heavy woman at 30.

The film’s pace was slow but it was effective as the tragedy of Marie Antoinette was meant to unravel and unfold rather than to excite or shock. While the use of loud rock music may be perceived as jarringly out of place, it was quite effective in providing contrast to the almost dreamy pace of the film.

The predominant colors all throughout the film were white, silver and gold which, I suppose, exemplify the height of luxury and frivolity. Details were not wanting — in architecture, landscape and costumes. Even the details of the wasteful life was there — the fancy breakfasts that the royal couple hardly touched day after day. The too-many ladies-in-waiting, each supported with taxpayers’ money to help the Queen take off her dress, wash her face, bring her shoes…

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette"
Image credit: Columbia Pictures

Marie Antoinette is not a popcorn film. You don’t watch it the way you’d watch Star Wars or The Italian Job. Otherwise, you’d end up like this guy who posted a review in Click The City calling the film boring and senseless. The point of studying Marie Antoinette’s life is precisely to understand the senselessness of monarchy and the senseless frivolity that taxpayers have to endure. So, the fact that the story was senseless was precisely the point.

Anyway, it’s not a bang-bang movie so don’t expect chases and high action. The film is actually a subtle treatment of an otherwise controversial and high-flying life that clashed too much with the harsh reality of poverty that the rest of France was suffering from. Instead if being judgmental, the film sought to show Marie Antoinette as a person and leaves the viewer to judge whether her faults and shortcomings as a Queen could have been prevented had she been more prepared for the role.

Beautiful and sophisticated film.

A few history trivia.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were Not the First People to Die by Guillotine

Nicolas Jacques Pelletier was the first man to be executed by guillotine. The day was April 25, 1792. The place was Paris, France. Pelletier’s crime? Robbery which, although disputed, the killing of the man he robbed together with his accomplices.

Surprised? Say guillotine and it conjures images of the French Revolution, and most people think that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were the first people who died by guillotine.

Well, they weren’t the first. Pelletier was. However, he was not the first to executed by beheading.

Execution by beheading is far older than the guillotine

Death by execution is an ancient form of punishment for criminals. There were many variations — hanging, impalement, burning at the stake, flaying and, of course, chopping off the head.

Chopping off the head, or decapitation, used to be done with an axe. If the axe was sharp and the headsman was skilled, decapitation was a swift affair. But, sometimes, as with the case of Margaret Pole, one swift blow was not enough.

The story of the actual execution is rather horrible, although it has sometimes been falsely embellished with tales of the executioner chasing Margaret around with an axe. There wasn’t any chasing, but Margaret did have the misfortune to have an inexperienced axe man who was, according to the Calendar of State Papers, ‘a wretched and blundering youth … who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner’.

Tudor History

More efficient, and less painful, ways to carry out the execution led to the invention of the guillotine.

The guillotine was named after its designer, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

The guillotine was not the first machine designed to result in decapitation. It had precursors including the Halifax Gibbet and the Scottish Maiden.

Doctor Guillotin together with German engineer and harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt, built the prototype for an ideal guillotine machine. Schmidt suggested using a diagonal blade instead of a round blade.

Thoughtco.com

The use of the guillotine spread to other European countries including Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. It was also used in Vietnam, a former French colony, before the reunification of North and South Vietnam.

Who was the last person to die by guillotine?

His name was Hamida Djandoubi. His crime? Kidnap, torture and murder of Élisabeth Bousquet. Djandoubi was executed on September 10, 1977.

The guillotine remained in use in France until 1981 when the death penalty was abolished.