L’Autrichienne

(31 october 2006)

Literally a year after the first teaser and no less than thirteen lifetimes of waiting, Marie Antoinette finally arrived. So I tarted myself up and trotted downtown to greet la Reine. I was not disappointed.

But my adoration for and enjoyment of this film won’t prevent me from exploiting it’s few discrepencies and omissions to make my The Whole Truth Is So Much More Interesting Than Anything That Could Ever Be Conveyed On Film And That Is Why Everyone Must Read Biography point.

As a person who has people, I am unspeakably thrilled whenever any other person opts to cinematically/theatrically/televisionally/biographically depict any of my people. But the thing about having people is that your people are invariably different from the people of others- even when they’re the same people.

Got that?

We all latch on to different details, different characteristics, different witty one-liners. A friend and I are writing a play about Marilyn and Jackie. Her Jackie is alone on a boat, wearing pink, and pregnant. My Jackie is a bohemian artist walking barefoot in Greece with paint flakes on her jeans. The same Jackie, but totally different. This is to be expected.

A surprising lot of how you view your people has to with your introduction to them. I met my Marie in Stephen Zewig’s An Average Woman, a 1932 biography that tenderly danced around the royal sex life and abounded with rogue exclamations (Louis gestured for d’Artois to bring the dinner rolls!). Zewig cast Marie as an ordinary person of limited education whose sense of duty enabled her to handle the horrors in her life with extraordinary courage. In essence, the woman was a master of the emotional kaboom.

Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is Coppola’s Marie (which we know is, in part, based heavily on biographer Antonia Fraser’s Marie)- a charming, flirty, dutiful vixen who held her head high in a palace echoing with cruel whispers. Coppola’s Louis, played by the brilliant Jason Schwartzman, was awesome. Her Marie, very well played by Kirsten Dunst, was lovely and was far better than no Marie at all, but she was not my Marie.

Coppola’s Marie was not my Marie largely because she was uncomfortably confined within one hour and fifty-eight minutes. And while she very adeptly captured the marriage’s sexual dysfunctions and the stifling pressures to produce an heir, in such confines, Coppola cut from her Marie’s story the details that most matter to mine.

Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan) appears in three scenes. He would seem little more than a hot one-night stand, which quite possibly resulted in the birth of the Dauphin, and whose departure sent Marie spinning into a depression manifested by long baths, tamer hairstyles and undereye circles. In reality, he was the Queen’s lover and friend for over a decade. He masterminded the royal family’s unsuccessful escape from imprisonment and risked his life repeatedly venturing into revolutionary Paris to see her. He was entirely discrete. He never spoke of her.

There’s also a reduction of the royal brood- three children appear rather than four. The death of Princess Sophie is depicted while the birth of the duc de Normandie is not. The birth of the highly anticipated Dauphin is portrayed while his death shortly before the revolution is entirely ignored. It was, in fact, the petulant duc de Normandie- who does not appear in Coppola’s film- who would become the Dauphin, who would be caught masturbating by his guards, and who would make the molestation charges that sent his mother to the guillotine.

Film is a convenient medium in that it allows for easily accessible expression. You don’t have to write twenty sentences to adequately convey the wryly disapproving arch of a royal brow. And I know things must be condensed. Stories must fit into boxes. Plots must flow quickly. We must not make people in theaters yawn over small details.

This would be why I stick to writing. The movie of my Marie would last at least four hours. The movie of my Jackie would be ten days long.

Because i think you can’t know Jackie if you don’t know that she was keenly aware of her husband’s pathological philandering. That her premature daughter died while her husband was sailing in France and that he continued sailing in France for a week before he returned home. That she lost a three-day-old son, a son she never saw, three months before her husband was murdered. That she was leaning in six inches from her husband’s face when the final shot hit. That, at Parkland Hospital, she nudged a doctor and handed him a sizeable chunk of her husband’s brain. And that four days later, the day she buried her husband, she threw a birthday party for her three-year-old son.

You have to know that because, to an extent, it is the shit in our lives and how we cope that makes us who we are. Admittedly, Marie Antoinette is a hip film attempting to resuscitate a distorted icon and make her applicable to a new generation. I am wanting it to mean entirely more than it was meant to. But too much is assumed when we deal with icons. Most people know nothing about Marie beyond the fact that she was decadent and lost her head. If this is the one chance we have to introduce a new generation to her, this is not enough for my Marie. Coppola verifies the decadence while only skimming the steeliness beneath the surface.

I sat through the entire movie watching the Princess de Lamballe, knowing we would later see her head on a pike. We didn’t. Coppola spared us that. But I doubt many people in the crowd knew the Lamballe was butchered, her heart ripped from her body, her head put on a stake and raised before the prison windows of Marie, whom the crowd asked to kiss the lips of her beheaded, beloved best friend. And that’s a pretty important smallish detail. You know Marie more by knowing that.

Coppola left her Marie in a carriage with Louis, bidding farewell to their Versailles. I wanted her to either leave them on the eve of revolution or see them through to the end. To show the King bidding his family farewell the night before what he knows will be the day of his death. To show Marie hearing the accusations her own son made against her, accusations so trumped up that even the revolutionaries were ashamed.

Maybe I just want everything to be Schindler’s List– to be visceral and epic. Because these are my people and they deserve to be shown in their full glory. Ribbons, feathers, sweets, champagne, and flirtations make for a pretty movie, but they are not a life. These people, my people, have lives of incredible complexity, unbelievable glamor and harrowing tragedy. It’s so much more than a matter of clothes and manners. It’s grace under pressure. And we could use more of that these days.

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