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"Let them eat cake!" a new PBS documentary examines the many myths surrounding Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, who met her end on the blade of the guillotine.

TO TELL THE STORY of Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, better known as Marie Antoinette, is to relive the great revolution that unleashed the forces which shaped our modern world. In his PBS documentary portrait, "Marie Antoinette," filmmaker David Grubin examines the many myths surrounding the last queen of France.

Born Her Imperial and Royal Highness Archduchess Maria on Nov. 2, 1755, she was executed at the height of the French Revolution, Oct. 16, 1793, having produced four children before her death. She is interred with her husband, Louis XVI, whom she married at age 14, in the royal crypt at the Saint Dennis Basilica in Paris.

Going beyond the simplistic tale of how a frivolous sovereign helped provoke the uprising that became the French Revolution, "Marie Antoinette" reveals a tender-hearted, complex woman whose tragic awakening came too late to save her front the guillotine. Without losing sight of the dire inequities in 18th-century France, this documentary presents a surprising portrait in which she emerges as a sympathetic and, in the end, courageous figure.

Narrated by Blair Brown, "Marie Antoinette" weaves together reenactments, photographs, moving images, the Queen's own words, portraits, paintings, and archival material. Interviews with historians and authors explore the ironies of her tragic late. Appearing in the film are biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, New Yorker art and culture critic Simon Schama, novelist Chantel Thomas, and historians Evelyne Lever, Antoine de Baecque, and Fanny Cosandey.

"Marie Antoinette" traces the Queen's journey from the splendors of her childhood in the palaces of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire to her final hours in a squalid French prison cell. From her disastrous marriage, which remained unconsummated for seven years, to her tortured relationship with her iron-willed mother, Antoinette's life was a long series of humiliations. Sacrificed to 18th-century power politics, she arrived in France when she was 14, a naive foreigner hardly prepared for the intrigues of the court at Versailles. Light-hearted, charming, and graceful, she threw her energies into an endless whirl of extravagant parties, never troubling to ask who was paying for the luxuries she took for granted.

Antoinette was an ordinary human being whose destiny was to be married to the King of France at the most crucial moment in the country's history. The revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille found the Queen a ready target for all that was wrong with France--but out of it, she did forge a completely different character. "Tribulation," she said, "first makes you realize who you are."

Her wealth and crown had made her heedless of the poor and the powerless. With new awareness and regal dignity, she mounted the steps of the scaffold, conscious of her failures, doomed by her own tragic flaws, a young woman trapped in a tumultuous moment of history.

"Marie Antoinette" debuts Sept. 25 on PBS. Meanwhile, Sophia Coppola's much anticipated feature film, "Marie Antoinette," with Kirsten Dunst leading a notable cast, is scheduled for theatrical release in October.

RELATED ARTICLE: Sympathy for a queen.


Like most Americans--and, I should add, like most of the French as well--I knew Marie Antoinette's name, but not much about her story. I knew that she was supposed to have said, "Let them eat cake"--she actually never spoke those famous words--and that she died by the guillotine, but not much more.

Then I read a biography by Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian man of letters, which I recommend as the perfect complement to this documentary. There is nothing like a film for the sensuous rendering of a story, but a book can give you a more spacious, leisurely account, providing all kinds of information which a film has no room for. Documentaries bring a subject to life with pictures, music, and the spoken word, making themes and ideas vivid and visceral.

Marie Antoinette was just 14 when she married the future Louis XVI, and still a teenager when she became Queen. In spite of her wrong-headedness and misdirection, I could not help but feel for her. Young, innocent, insecure, she had only one real job--to make babies. Her political power was concentrated in her reproductive power. So, it came as a surprise to me to find out that she did not consummate her marriage with King Louis for seven years.

Now, you might ask why that should matter? Isn't this just a revelation for the tabloids? Sex and politics, however, can be an explosive mix. Former Pres. Bill Clinton surely can tell you that. Marie Antoinette's enemies, and the enemies of the King, used the couple's problems in the bedroom to attack them, and bring down the monarchy.

The King was depicted in the popular press of the day as impotent, powerless to rule, and the Queen as a debauched woman forced to find satisfaction elsewhere. If the King could not control his wife, the tabloids implied, how could he possibly rule the country.

Marie Antoinette became a scapegoat, blamed for the economic crisis confronting France. Worse, she was seen as a moral degenerate, whose lurid behavior was emblematic of the moral decline of the country. All of this was a lie of monstrous proportions, yet Marie Antoinette was unable to refute it. The misogyny of the era was palpable. In the end, the helpless woman was sacrificed to the politics of the Revolution. How could you not feel for her?

Although she was victimized, I did not want to let the Queen off the hook for her very real mistakes. Just because I sympathized with her, I did not want to lose sight of her own lack of sympathy with the revolutionaries--particularly when the conflict began. Her wealth and crown made her heedless of the poor and powerless. She was incapable of understanding the possibilities for compromise. She played an important role in the early days of the French Revolution, and I believe it was a destructive one.

I was intent on telling a story rife with contradictions, and creating a full-blooded human being. I wanted you to feel for Marie Antoinette as a woman, but condemn her as a queen, a spoiled darling who, in the end, was transformed by the enormity of history and the agony of her suffering.
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Title Annotation:Mass Media
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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