Judge Brendan Babish enjoyed this new PBS documentary with cake.
Our review of Marie Antoinette (1938), published November 14th, 2006, is also available.
"Do try to fill your head stuffed with good reading; you need it more than almost anyone."
With interest in Marie Antoinette piqued by Sofia Coppola's splashy biopic, PBS has conveniently released this documentary on the life of the last queen of France. Over the years, PBS's documentaries have developed sterling reputations for being informative and entertaining. Every week, I Tivo around two of three of their programs and I'm rarely disappointed. While Marie Antoinette does not equal some of the channel's previous great documentaries (RFK, The Donner Party, The Civil War), it is a worthy addition to their lauded catalog.
Marie Antoinette was born to Austrian royalty, and was the 15th of 16 children. At the age of 14 she was married off to 15-year-old Louis-Auguste, the future Louis XVI of France. For the first several years of their marriage, Louis was aloof, and refused to sleep with his new wife. This became common knowledge throughout the palace, and led to several unflattering rumors about the prince. However, seven years into the marriage, Antoinette conceived her first of four children.
Antoinette became queen of France at age 19 when her father-in-law, King Louis XV, suddenly died of smallpox. Supposedly, after receiving news of his death, Antoinette and her husband fell to their knees and cried, "Dear Lord, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign." This would end up being a prophetic prayer.
At the time of King Louis XVI's coronation, the country was suffering from food shortages. Nonetheless, Antoinette, who rarely left her palace, became a spendthrift out of boredom. She eschewed intellectual pursuits, and began assigning positions of importance to her under qualified friends. In Coppola's film, Antoinette is depicted as something of an 18th century Paris Hilton. Though PBS's highbrow production resists evoking such a gaudy modern analogue, the comparison is not without merit.
Out of spite for her lavish lifestyle, vicious rumors began circulating about the oblivious Antoinette. Illegal presses in Paris began printing pamphlets featuring graphic depictions of her in all manner of sexual positions with several different partners (the documentary helpfully provides several examples). Inflamed by these pornographic images, as well as the royal family's rampant spending in the face of widespread poverty, the populace turned against the king and his even more unpopular wife. A mob broke into the palace and took the royal family hostage. After an attempt to share power, and an escape attempt by the royals, angry French revolutionaries finally decided the country would only be able to move forward by killing Antoinette and her husband. On Oct. 16, 1793, she was beheaded in a front of a cheering crowd in Paris.
The documentary does an admirable job supplying a variety of visuals, including several portraits as well as interiors and exteriors of the palace at Versailles and the surrounding environs. The filmmakers also deserve credit for their skilled dramatizations, especially the evocative scenes at Antoinette's trial, which employ a series of close-ups of eyes over a narration of the charges against her. The documentary also features an impressive collection of historians. Some of these are American, but most are French. In addition to their obvious scholarship, these French scholars bring an undisguised and contagious enthusiasm to the subject.
One of the film's few faults is its stiffness. Though Antoinette's life features many moments of absurdity and lewdness—such as her husband's years long bout of impotence—the harpsichord-laden music remains staid and the narrator maintains a dry, humorless tone. In her dramatic recreation of Antoinette's life, Coppola better understood how to incorporate the pageantry and pomposity of the young royal's life on the screen. Still, as a history lesson, this documentary is certainly successful and as entertainment manages to be adequate.
One more black strike against this DVD is its lack of special features. Though PBS must be working on a tight budget, I cannot imagine it would cost much to include a picture gallery, and/or an essay with additional information on Antoinette's life. Most other PBS releases include something of this sort.
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