Marie Antoinette is a chef-d’oeuvre film that chronicles Stefan Zweig’s 1933 bio of the doomed Austrian born Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. At a very tender age of 15 years, Marie Antoinette becomes the Queen of France but not without weathering the perfidious systems of the Versailles Court.
This film cuts across Marie Antoinette’s youth, marriage, trials and tribulations as a queen and her ultimate maturity coupled with loyalty that took her to prison and finally to grave, standing beside her estranged husband, King Louis XVI. Norma Shearer tried to incorporate some historical accuracies and inaccuracies in the film to suit her agenda.
As aforementioned, to some extent, the film is historically accurate. True to the movie, Marie Antoinette became the Queen of France at the age of 15 years. Historically, Marie’s marriage plunged into squabbles soon after tying the knot, probably due to the tender age at which she married.
Just as the film depicts, King Louis XVI took over seven years before he could father his first-born in what the French populace branded a case of ‘tight foreskin.’ The costumes used in the film accurately depict the costumes that Marie Antoinette sported during her days. Gilbert Adrian, the film’s director spent over three years researching on the costumes and from Vienna’s Royal Archives; he secured invaluable information concerning the Queen’s dress code.
The film reserves the historical truth that Marie Antoinette met her death through execution at the height of French Revolution. Moreover, Shearer depicts the real personality of Marie Antoinette, a frivolous woman who cared little about anything until she matured towards her death. Apart from these few instances of historical accuracy in the movie, Shearer distorted many facts to suit her agenda.
Norma Shearer’s version of Marie Antoinette contains numerous historical inaccuracies in what appears to be Shearer’s attempt to fit into Hollywood. Madame Jean Du Barry comes out as a manipulative and influential queen while in reality, she had little or no influence concerning decision making in the French Court. Early in her career, Norma Shearer preferred to depict women as people who could only pass as femme fatales.
However, in 1934 a policy passed by the Hayes Office in collaboration with the Catholic League of Decency demanded all filmic cannons to be free of cheap, vulgar and tawdry insinuations. Consequently, by the time Norma Shearer completed Marie Antoinette, she had to make the queen a benevolent character. In the light of these revelations, Norma’s Christ-like interpretation of the real Marie Antoinette is not a surprise.
For instance, in reality Antoinette loved to tell the starving French people, “Let them eat cake.” Interestingly, Norma did not capture this infamous one-liner in her film. Instead, Norma chose to present Marie as a victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Moreover, anyone conversant with French history would realize the conspicuous light exploration of the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair.’
Marie Antoinette was at the centre of controversy that dogged the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair.’ History holds that, Jeanne de la Motte purchased unsparing diamond necklaces in the name of the Queen.
After the matter went public, Marie sought a scapegoat in Rohan; nevertheless, the Paris Parliament acquitted him of any wrongdoing indicating that, Marie was involved in the Diamond Affair. In the film, Norma uses romantic fiction to lighten the court intrigues that resulted from this spendthrift contestation. Norman introduces Count Fersen and the nefarious Duke Philippe to cover up this issue. In reality, Phillipe was executed after the Diamond Necklace Affair while in the film; he appears as an adored figure.
Actually, Norma distorted historical facts and in the final analysis, Phillipe receives massive tracts of land due to his participation in ‘loving’ the Queen. In the film, Norma barely glimpses the tumultuous trial that Marie went through. Norma deliberately distorted many historical truths to comply with the Hayes Office requirements of exempting anything vile and tawdry in filming industry of that time.
This is a propaganda film. Norma Shearer is trying to sway the audience to a particular way of political thinking. If her sole aim were to explore the life of Marie Antoinette, she would have observed the truths without caring what the Hayes Office and the Catholic League of Decency called for.
If anything, Norma only risked declining popularity in motion picture entertainment. Norma wanted to sway the audience into thinking that Marie Antoinette was a benevolent Queen void of common human errors. What explains the conspicuous light treatment given to the trials that Marie and her husband faced?
The love story invented to cover up the earnestness of Marie’s trial and her subsequent execution is a clear indication that Norma wanted to propagate a given propaganda. Anyone conversant with the French history would sense some form of propaganda by failing to see deep analysis of the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair.’ Of all controversies that dogged King Louis XVI’s reign, the most prominent is the almost bankrupt state caused by the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair.’
Norma’s agenda in distorting historical truths is to dupe people into thinking that, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were the perfect couple of the time and their reign bordered on perfectionism. Norma could not propagate her propaganda sufficiently without introducing some damaging political stereotypes.
Marie Antoinette’s picture presented to the audience is a stereotype. People would expect a Queen to be the best mother, wife and a friend of many. With the full knowledge of these stereotypes, Norma intended to give the audience what it expected. In reality, Marie Antoinette was a terrible mother, the worst wife and a foe to many. Her unpopularity earned her the infamous nickname, “the Austrian.”
Moreover, she never liked the French populace thus explaining why she dismissed them saying, ‘let them eat cake.” Nevertheless, Norman did not include the ‘bad’ side of Marie Antoinette. On the contrary, she chose to use stereotypes that would meet audience’s expectations. As aforementioned, Marie in the film appears as the best mother, wife and a benevolent woman who loves all and hates none. Regrettably, this stereotype is damaging as history lovers are quick to point out the distorted historical facts.
Parallels between the historical events and people depicted in the movie and the happenings in contemporary society stand out conspicuously. In Swaziland where King Mswati perpetuates the monarchial system of governance, teenage queens are common. The issue of King or president’s wife sleeping around just as Marie Antoinette dominates the media in the contemporary times.
Still in Swaziland, Mswati’s twelfth wife, LaDube was caught sleeping around with Ndumiso Mamba the justice minister. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe had to chase the ghost of infidelity when Grace, his wife, reportedly admitted to be in a five-year relationship with Gideon Gono, the Zimbabwe Central Bank’s head. The infidelity that dogged King Louis XVI reign parallels the infidelity that continues to haunt presidents and king’s reigns in the contemporary times.
Similarly, the death of King Louis XVI through execution parallels that of Sadam Hussein who walked the same road in the modern society. When implicated in the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’, Marie was quick to find a scapegoat in Rohan just as many politicians in today’s society, who easily transfer blame to their juniors every time they are implicated in any corrupt deal.
Talking of corruption, scandals akin to the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’ define leadership systems around the world today. Prominent people have been forced to step down from their leadership positions to pave way for further investigations into corruption deals or office abuses. Regrettably, only few leaders are willing to step down for further investigations; majority prefer to cling to power even when evidence dictate that they step down.
In 2006, Sofia Coppola released a new version of Marie Antoinette formerly done by Norma Shearer in 1938. Coppola made numerous changes in Marie Antoinette perhaps to suit a younger audience in the contemporary times. For instance, Dunst is very different from Norma Shearer even though they play the same role in the two versions of the movie.
Norma’s frivolous nature contradicts Dunst’s sweet, caring personality. In the newer version, rock music bridges different scenes: an element that lacks in the older version. Norma’s version is filmed in only black and white while Coppola’s version sports glamorous filming full of advanced technology.
In the 1938 version, Marie Antoinette is executed in the dying moments of the movie while the 2006 version closes by Marie Antoinette escaping to Versailles together with her family. Finally, while the old version leaves the affair between Marie and Fersen platonic, in the new version, Fersen makes love to Marie. Coppola made these several changes to suit the needs of a growing youthful audience that would find the old version archaic and irrelevant.
Nevertheless, Coppola retained some truths just as Norma Shearer does in her masterpiece. For instance, in the two versions, the actors playing the role of Marie are strong and humorous. Moreover, both Marie’s husbands have sexual deficiencies that bar sexual activities from their marriages for over seven years.
In conclusion, Marie Antoinette contains some historical inaccuracies and accuracies alike. The director had to change some historical truths to propagate her agenda of exposing monarchial leadership as the best. Similarly, Coppola made some changes in the new version of Marie Antoinette to suit the needs of a younger audience that would easily dismiss the old version as archaic and obsolete.
The motive behind changes made in the two films underscores the differences between the same; that is, while Coppola makes changes to meet the needs of a younger audience, Antony Harvey Norma Shearer makes changes to advance her agenda that defines the storyline of her film, Marie Antoinette. From the movie, I specifically learnt Marie Antoinette became a queen at a very tender age.
I realized that King Louis XVI’s reign almost ran into bankruptcy and in a bid to escape, he was captured and executed at the height of the French Revolution.