Marie Antoinette was, like, so famous...

Mark Steel

Eventually, inevitably, in our celebrity-driven culture in which it doesn't matter what someone's done as long as they're famous, someone would apply this outlook to history. The result is a film about Marie Antoinette, in which no one troubles for a moment with the extraordinary events she was dragged into, but instead is a profile of a celeb, as if they really wanted to do Paris Hilton but someone else owned the rights.

If the film's makers were asked about George Washington they'd say, "Oh he's so, like, mega - on bank notes and everything. But hey, he's done the whole constitution thing so now he should do something more urban, like a video with Christina Aguilera."

You get an idea of the approach from an interview with Kirsten Dunst, who played the Queen of France, in which she said of her character: "All she really wanted to do was go to Paris and visit the opera like anybody on the street." Because that was what life was like at the time for anybody on the street - opera, opera, opera. Maybe, when Marie Antoinette was told the people had no bread, what she actually said was: "Then let them attend The Marriage of Figaro. If they go to the opening night there'll be so many canapés by the time their carriage arrives they'll be stuffed."

The outcome is a remarkable achievement, in that it portrays Marie Antoinette's life as relentlessly tedious, although here was a woman who, forced as a teenager to marry an heir to the throne she'd never met, became a despised symbol of the monarchy.

In the revolution, she fled from the mob to Versailles, was forced back to Paris, then tried to escape with the King while dressed as a Russian in a stagecoach arranged by her Swedish lover, before being captured by a postmaster. She secretly helped foreign armies invade the country she was still queen of, was imprisoned, falsely accused of sexually abusing her own son and sentenced to the guillotine.
But the director seems to have said: "Yes, but the main thing is her dresses were a lovely shade of crimson." If this is the way history is to be presented, soon the answer to an exam question "What was the Battle of Trafalgar?" will be "Light grey with a shade of pastel blue."

There'll be a section in Heat magazine announcing Richard II is rocketing up the A-list following his new Robin Hood series, and showing him dancing with Girls Aloud at the launch party for Jodie Marsh's new line of disinfectants. And there will be a historical Big Brother, in which we're told: "It's 6.45 pm and the housemates are irritated because Genghis is pillaging the kitchen area."

A hierarchy will develop, so Cromwell and Henry VIII will be interviewed by Graham Norton, while Davina McCall screams: "And after someone from Holby City we've got none other than Sverker the Elder, King of Sweden from 1130 to 1156!"

The plan must be that every view of the world should revolve around the private behaviour of the famous, ignoring the events that surround them. Historians interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4 will say: "You can say what you like about Hitler, at least he was faithful to his girlfriend, not like that Jamie Theakston."

Apart from clothes, the Marie Antoinette film concentrates on her sex life, which must have been an exasperating one as her job was to get pregnant, and she was blamed for the deficiencies of her asexual husband. But even this ordeal is diluted, and overcome with gentle coaxing, as if the Royal Court was an episode of Friends. And everyone reacts with modern American characteristics, for example pulling a face that says, "Huh - whatever."

So you wonder whether the original idea was to make a sickly American sitcom called: "It's Marie". Maybe there's a deleted scene in which Marie Antoinette goes out to the street to meet the people. She says: "You know, I've been thinking and maybe I have been a little extravagant. I guess I was just so wrapped up in stuff like castles and diamonds I kinda forgot what was really important."And the people say: "Hey, and we forgot that true friends stick together, even if one of you helps to organise an army to kill the others," then they all hug and go to a patisserie for some cake.

The French Revolution is an astonishing story, in which peasants, postmasters and slaves overturned a regime that believed it was sanctioned by God to rule forever. To create a film in its midst as dull as this could only be achieved by ignoring the outside world. The only time it's referred to is when Versailles is besieged by a mob. Even then you don't see them, and I started to hallucinate that they'd charge in, the King would bellow: "What do you want?" and the mob would scream: "In the name of all citizens we demand an immediate end to this film. For the love of France, let the audience go free."
The cheery part is it has failed to appeal to a mass audience, for the same reason characters like Chantelle and Peter Andre rarely hold people's attention for more than a few weeks. But the irony missed by vacuous Hollywood is that if Marie Antoinette hadn't been executed, she'd have been a nobody. Who can name the queen that came before her? So the film should have ended with the guillotine about to fall on Marie Antoinette, while her agent yelled: "Marie, darling, this will be wonderful for your profile."


This article originally appeared in the Independent

October 2006

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