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Marie Antoinette mania has swept through Paris, manifesting itself in a drama played to packed houses, “My Name was Marie Antoinette”. At the final curtain audiences are asked to vote on whether the most famous French queen of all should receive the death penalty; few of them do. It is not just the play that seeks to rehabilitate Marie. A new film, “Marie Antoinette”, directed by Sofia Coppola, depicts her as a naïve young victim of the world in which she lives, trapped in an endless merry-go-round of conspicuous consumption and display. Inspired by the lavish images from the movie, some of the finest fashion shops in Paris have introduced Marie Antoinette styles: shoes made by Manolo Blahnik, taffeta gowns by Alexander McQueen, and Dior dresses by John Galliano.
In Sofia Coppola’s film, Kirsten Dunst in the title role skilfully captures the image of the little lost girl propelled into, and rebelling against, the vacuous microcosm of the French Court. Where this beautifully shot production loses its way, however, is in depicting Marie Antoinette as apolitical. The real Queen fought tooth and nail to keep her husband, the weak and indecisive Louis XVI, on the throne. She failed, literally lost her head, and was condemned by contemporary commentators as a traitor largely because history is invariably written by the winners.
Marie Antoinette, the chattel of a political marriage, was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, dispatched in 1770 from her native Austria to France aged 14, as the bride-to-be of the 15-year-old heir to the French throne, Louis-Auguste, to be crowned King Louis XVI in 1775. He had a fascination for Marie’s breasts, but for seven years this was the only sexual attention she received from the Bourbon dynasty. Louis-Auguste fell asleep without touching his bride on his wedding night, and proved to have a rare disorder that made sex painful. His condition was eventually resolved by circumcision, no small matter in adulthood without anesthetic or sterilized instruments.
Louis XVI did father four children, but whereas under previous regimes salacious gossip rarely left the confines of the Court, unfortunately for the royal couple it now found its way to the pamphleteers in intimate detail and stoked the fires of the French Revolution. Their pamphlets alleged that the king was impotent and had been cuckolded by his younger brother, while Marie Antoinette was accused of being a compulsive nymphomaniac with both sexes, of having syphilis, of being a debauched woman completely without morals.
In the meantime Marie, despite these unfounded rumours, relieved her sexual frustrations by embarking on a gigantic spending-spree, earning the soubriquet ‘Madame Deficit’. In 1776 she overspent by three times her annual clothing allowance, which was already in terms of today’s money the more than generous equivalent of almost £400,000.
This coincided with the failure of the 1774 harvest, leaving many people starving, unable to afford the rising price of bread. However there is no evidence to support the claims of the pamphleteers that Marie ever said disdainfully, on hearing of the plight of the peasantry, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, “Well let them eat cake then”. On the contrary, she made considerable personal efforts to alleviate poverty in Paris.
The notorious remark wrongly attributed to Marie was first given prominence by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Volume 6 of his Confessions. In 1740, as an impoverished tutor in Lyon, he stole some wine and had problems scrounging anything to eat with it until he recalled these words of, as he put it, “a great princess” and promptly stole some expensive bread as well. Rousseau was writing in February or March 1766, when Marie was ten years old and still in Austria, so he clearly did not have her in mind.
Marie Antoinette’s biographer Antonia Fraser thought the remark was made by Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Thérèse, a Spanish princess, but the evidence for this is questionable to say the least. The editor of Figaro, Alphonse Karr, carried out some research in 1843 and concluded that if such a thing were ever said at Versailles on the eve of the Révolution, the author was an Italian duchess and that her point was far from frivolous. The duchess apparently wanted all the French regulations on bread making to be enforced, particularly the obligation on bakers to sell expensive pastries at the price of the cheapest bread (whose weight and price were strictly fixed) if there was not enough plain bread to go round. At the time, to get around the rules, bakers would bake only a handful of ordinary loaves and used most of their available flour on unregulated products that had no fixed prices.
Antonia Fraser’s definite 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: A Journey, has finally been published in French on the back of the film, which draws extensively from it. However, the French publishers refused to use the second part of the original title. Says Antonia, “I was interested in her development, her journey, but apparently the French did not want to acknowledge that.” Outside a few sophisticated Parisian theatregoers, Marie Antoinette remains villain, not victim.
The queen’s cell, where she was held before her execution in 1793, can be visited at the Conciergerie on the bank of the Seine, together with the Basilica de St-Denis where her remains were finally buried. Although some of the film was shot with special permission at Versailles, Coppola also used Vaux-le-Vicomte, the extravagant château that was the undoing of its builder, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Fouquet, and the magnificent Opéra Garnier. The palace of Fontainebleau has preserved Marie Antoinette’s private boudoir, complete with many of its original furnishings, which offer clues to the true character and taste of France’s most tragic queen.
Basilica de St-Denis
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte