Eventually, in our celebrity-driven culture–in which it doesn’t matter what someone’s done, or even if they’ve ever done anything as long as they’re famous–it was inevitable someone would apply this outlook to history. The result is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a film in which no one troubles for a moment with any of the extraordinary events the queen was dragged into. This film, instead, is a profile of a celeb, as if the filmmakers really wanted to do Paris Hilton but someone else owned the rights.
If the makers of this film were asked about George Washington, they’d say, “Oh, he’s so, like, mega. He must have such a cool publicist because he’s on bank notes and everything. And, like, he’s done the whole Constitution thing, so now he should do something more kinky, like a video with Christina Aguilera.”
Not once does this film show life outside the royal court. Because who wants to know about loser peasants and slaves who are, like, nobodies. You get an idea of the approach from an interview with Kirsten Dunst, who played the queen of France, in which she said of her character, “All she really wanted to do was go to Paris and visit the opera and probably be like anybody on the street.” Because that was what life was like for anybody on the street at the time–opera, opera, opera. Maybe, when she was told the people had no bread, what she actually said was, “Then let them attend The Marriage of Figaro. If they go to the opening night there’ll be waiters wandering around with canapes–by the time their carriage arrives they’ll be stuffed.”
The outcome is a remarkable achievement, in that it portrays Marie-Antoinette’s life as relentlessly tedious. Even a royalist account that took notice of the events she became embroiled in would have been compelling. For here was a woman who, having been forced as a teenager to marry an heir to the throne she’d never met, became a despised symbol of the monarchy. While thousands starved, her allowance for clothes and jewelry was more than 1,000 times greater than the annual average income. And the discontent that surrounded her developed into a quest for a new method of running the world, in which prominent figures would be chosen on merit rather than by family name.
Against this revolution, Marie-Antoinette fought obstinately for the divine right of kings. She moved away from the mob to Versailles, was forced back to Paris, then tried to escape with the king, while dressed as a Russian in a stagecoach arranged by her Swedish lover, before being captured by a postmaster. She secretly helped foreign armies invade her country while she was still queen, was imprisoned, falsely accused of sexually abusing her own son and sentenced to the guillotine. But all that’s ignored, as if the makers of this film said, “Yes, but the main thing is, her dresses were a lovely rich shade of crimson.” If this is the way history is to be presented, soon the answer to an exam question “What was the Battle of Gettysburg?” will be “Light brown with a shade of pastel green.”