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Mark Steel on the new movie about Marie-Antoinette
The celebrity view of history

November 3, 2006 | Page 11

MARK STEEL is a comedian, a columnist for the Independent newspaper and a socialist and activist in Britain. His book Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution has just been published in a new U.S. edition by Haymarket Books. Here, he takes a look at the recently released film Marie Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola.

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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 a film about Marie-Antoinette in which no one troubles for a moment with any of the extraordinary events she was dragged into, but that instead is a profile of a celeb, as if they really wanted to do Paris Hilton, but someone else owned the rights.

What else to read

Mark Steel's Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution, published by Haymarket Books in a new U.S. edition, is a fantastic and accessible introduction to one of the most important events in history.

Steel sets out the backdrop to France's revolution, describes the toppling of the king and the experiments in a new social order, and analyzes why the revolution was corrupted and turned back. He makes the story both interesting and hilarious--a refreshing change of pace from the brand of history most people encounter in school.


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 plays 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 canapés--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, when even a royalist account that took notice of the events she became embroiled in should be 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 over 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 should be chosen on merit, instead of their 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 the country she was still queen of, 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 pastille green."

This isn't to suggest her personal plight shouldn't be examined, or even sympathized with. As a teenage bride, she was blamed for her dopey husband's inability to get her pregnant.

Following a man-to-man discussion between the king and his brother-in-law, Joseph the Second, Joseph wrote, "The King has strong perfectly satisfactory erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating and bids good night...

"If only I could have been there! I could have seen to it. The King of France would have been whipped so that he would have ejaculated out of sheer rage like a donkey." Which suggests it's just as well Joseph the Second was never asked to write a problem page in a men's magazine.

But even the brutality of this ordeal is diluted and overcome with some gentle coaxing, as if the royal court was an episode of Friends. And although the absurdities of the stifling royal protocol are portrayed in some detail, the effect is ruined because everyone reacts with modern American characteristics--for example, pulling a face that says, "Huh, whatever."

So you wonder whether the whole thing was made by the Disney Channel. Maybe there's a deleted scene in which Marie-Antoinette goes out to the street and meets the people. She says, "You know, I've been thinking and maybe you're right, I have been a little extravagant. I guess I was just so wrapped up in stuff like castles and diamonds, I kinda forgot what was really important." And the people say, "Hey, and we forgot that true friends stick together, even if one of you helps to organize an army to kill all the others." Then they all hug and go to a patisserie for some cake.

It probably doesn't matter much if someone makes a dreadful film, but it's alarming that the past is becoming seen, like the present, as a place in which the most important thing of all is who's famous. Perhaps their next project will explore the love affair between Eva Braun and Hitler, but without spoiling it by raising side issues such as war and fascism.

The French Revolution is one of the most astonishing stories in history, in which peasants, postmasters, slaves and washerwomen, overturned a regime that believed it was sanctioned by God to rule forever. It stirred a million astonishing personal stories, so to create a film set in its heart that's as dull as this is a triumph.

It's achieved because the only time there's even a reference to the outside world is when the Versailles Palace is besieged by a mob. Even then, you hear them but don't see them, and I started to hallucinate that they'd charge in, the king would bellow, "What do you want?" and the mob would scream, "We demand an immediate and total end to this film. In the name of all citizens, let the audience go free."

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