For the first time in my adult life, I receive more than fifteen channels. The basic package seems like the cheapest option (and it is, technically), but it’s probably one of the worst values in terms of what you get for your money, unless you really like televised church sermons, daytime talk shows, reality TV, talent competitions, procedural crime dramas, canned sitcoms, and local news.
I don’t know if I’ll keep the cable package indefinitely, but it’s certainly a novelty to scan through about two hundred options (of course, there are still times when nothing is on). A couple of weeks ago, I came across Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette on the Sundance Channel. I hadn’t seen the movie (alright, fine—film) since it was released in 2006, before I had honed my research interests to British Romantic literature and revolution-era politics. I didn’t remember much more than the obscenely opulent costume and set designs (as my wife once put it, “okay, I get it—everything’s fancy”), so I nuked some kettle corn and plopped down on the couch.
The film’s unrelenting depiction of the superficiality of the Ancien Régime (old regime) in France might lead the viewer to see the film itself as superficial (it does wink at the viewer so much that if it were a person it would look like it’s having a seizure), but Coppola balances the cotton candy stylization with a deep sense of history. It’s well known that she used Antoina Fraser’s revisionist Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001) as the basis for her screenplay, and, intentionally or unintentionally, the film is also rooted in the dramatic and rhetorical goals of British literature contemporary with the Revolution.1
Though its authors in no way hailed from the same demographic, 1790s British poetry about Marie Antoinette2 sought to represent the queen exclusively in her domestic roles as mother and wife, or, rather, as a tragic figure whose efforts to fulfill her domestic roles as mother and wife were stymied by misguided and bloodthirsty revolutionaries. The forced separation from her husband and children is a particularly common subject.
Coppola’s Marie Antoinette operates similarly. The drama of the film, the reason that we identify and empathize with Marie Antoinette, lies in the character’s frustrations in fulfilling domestic roles. She cannot arouse the sexual and social interests of her husband,3 and in an emblematic scene, after the birth of her first child, she is prevented from nursing or caring for her daughter. As she is reminded, there are servants to do that sort of work for her. The movie establishes that the queen’s, well, queen-ness is oppositional to her domestic happiness. She even tries to turn her royal retreat into a bucolic paradise to compensate for her lack of domestic agency at Versailles. Mary Robinson’s “Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation” (1793) most notably establishes this zero-sum game between domestic and royal obligations.
The clearest connection to Revolution-era literature, though, is the movie’s final scene. After the royal family leaves Versailles because of the October Days mob, we’re shown the royal bedchamber in tatters, obviously ransacked. The mob has violated the most intimate space of Marie Antoinette’s domestic life, and though the movie ends before the queen’s imprisonment and execution, the scene poignantly whispers of the violence that’s to come.
Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), posits in what we now call the “bed chamber scene” that during the mob’s occupation of Versailles,
“[a] band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with [a murdered guard’s] blood, rushed into the chamber of the [French] queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.”
Burke is certainly more heavy-handed than Coppola, as the symbolic rape of the bed syntactically precedes an “almost naked” queen fleeing the scene. Both, however, use the ruined bedchamber as a way of suggesting that Marie Antoinette’s domestic happiness has been permanently thwarted by the vicissitudes of politics and power.
This all shows that the legacy of Romanticism is still very much alive. Empathizing with the personal plight of a character—what Joanna Baillie called our “sympathetick propensity” and what Wordsworth wrote of as the “perception of similitude in dissimilitude”—is expected of the audience, be it for a movie, book, play, or otherwise. Similarly, the audience expects to be able to relate to the character. This isn’t exclusive to Art; in the civic sphere, for example, some voters consider whether a candidate seems like the kind of person they could spend time with in an everyday situation.
Empathy, of course, is an ideal, not always a reality, as a recent study has found (appropriately, this study specifically concerns college students and perceptions of fairness—see the recent Novel Ideas “Selections from the News Stand” post on academic (dis)honesty). Moreover, the idea of identifying with a character can also become a straw man of its own. I’m reminded of a commercial for Soul Surfer (2011) during which a moviegoer, appendages intact and in no way athletic, describes a story about a teenage surfing prodigy who loses an arm in a shark attack as “relatable.” Also, as any literature teacher knows, the word “relatable” is responsible for 90% of dreck in essays.
Regardless, Romanticism saw a renewed focus on the utopia of domesticity, which always seems in danger of corruption or dissolution from the mechanisms of political, social, and economic power. It’s an interesting chiasmic flip from Antiquity’s championing of political life over domestic life, though it’s certainly congruous with the Romantic turn away from Enlightenment neoclassicism. At the same time, I don’t think that Romanticism rejected the Enlightenment as much as it built from and took the latter in a new direction. It’s impossible to explore these larger issues and questions in such a short blog post, but I hope to do them justice in more formal research.
For the meantime, I do think that Coppola’s Marie Antoinette portrays its eponymous subject with more complexity, as the historical literature almost entirely ignores the old regime’s frivolity and excess in the face of national poverty and starvation. Sure, it’s sad that a family was broken apart by violence, but how many other families had to live in horrible, inhuman conditions?
I don’t mean to say that the literature is less successful in comparison; that would apply anachronistic standards. The immediacy of the events made it impossible to bring in ideas of social (in)justice without losing an empathetic reaction to the queen’s situation, and along with the balm of time, a visual medium allows us to share the queen’s alienation from her decadent milieu. We recognize her faults, but we don’t demonize her for her country’s problems. This might sound underwhelming as an insight, but some people were downright mean, accusing her of indulging in mega-orgies with palace guards and incest with her son, among other immoralities.
Kirsten Dunst’s girl-next-door aura also helps to mollify our disdain for Marie Antoinette’s privilege. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man trilogy is a comedy of errors, but casting Dunst as Mary Jane, the girl next door, was a smart move. Okay, maybe I’m being too generous. Let’s just leave it at this: it wasn’t the worst casting decision of the franchise.
1. I’ve written on this subject in The CEA Critic 72.2, and this entry could be considered as a postscript for my argument there. Among other issues, my article examines the rhetoric of reclaiming a figurehead of the old regime as a martyr of domesticity.
2. See, for example, Thomas Atkinson’s A Poetical Epistle from Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, to Leopold the Second, Emperor of Germany (1791), Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants part II, circa line 150 (1793), Anna Maria Jones’s “Stanzas: Marie Antoinette’s Complaint in Prison” (1793), Eliza Broughton’s “Evening” (1793), Mary Robinson’s “Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation” and Monody to the Memory of the Late Queen of France (1793), the anonymously authored “Marie Antoinette’s Ghost” (1793), and Ann Yearsley’s “Elegy on Marie Antoinette” (1795).
3. Perhaps Louis XVI is taking a cue from Family Guy and just can’t decide if Kirsten Dunst would beat Sarah Jessica Parker in a “weird face/hot body” contest. To be fair, though, Jason Schwartzman probably approaches sex with the ennui of a Wes Anderson movie.