In view of recent controversies, it is interesting to speculate whether historical characters on the big screen have always attracted so much controversy. Historical films are, in fact, often shoved into long-drawn debates on the matter of the elusive ‘authenticity’. At the same time, it is important to consider if the filmmaker brings to the movie a specific perspective or interpretation of history.
In this regard, one of the best historical films in recent times would evidently be the 2006 Kirsten Dunst starrer Marie Antoinette . Though it has been quite some while since it was released, it is a movie that cannot be easily forgotten. It lends to the controversial subject, a distinct viewpoint as well as a dignified detachment. It did not set the box office on fire, but received a mixed critical response, however, I must say that it is a movie that anyone remotely interested in the life of this much misunderstood queen should watch. When I went to see it, I had no expectations of it. And I was shut up with a largely unappreciative audience. But the fact that I managed to survive their misplaced screams and comments and enjoy the movie shows the depth with which it tackles its subject.
The greatest strength of the movie is that it makes absolutely no judgements. It shows Mary Antoinette as she must have been – a young foreigner married to a dull but decent French emperor, thrust into the very heart of court politics and intrigue. One would not expect her to rise above it unscathed and she didn’t. Sophia Coppola paints Mary Antoinette in a very realistic light, but adds to it her own little touch of sympathy and that really makes it special because your heart will go out to this young girl who is so lonely despite all the riches and luxury she is surrounded with. In the course of her marriage, Mary Antoinette courts great number of controversies, enjoys her life to the hilt and has an illicit romance with a young French nobleman. At the same time, we see her struggling under the pressure of being France’s Queen, trying to seduce her sexually disinterested husband and yearning for a space to breath in the wide, richly studded galleries of the royal palace. She is often mean, sometimes petty, and almost always frivolous. Yet her marriage matures her tremendously as she later becomes a great support for her husband, not quitting his side even when she could have. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when she comes out to the balcony and faces an angry mob. It is a breathtaking scene as we realize that every person in that mob hated her yet could not help admire her courage. Very wisely, the movie does not dwell on the actual revolution and assassination but chooses to symbolize it in the last scene which shows a grand room with a broken chandelier. It is, perhaps, the same room where Mary Antoinette and her friends spent their days at leisure, oblivious to the sufferings of people outside the palace. Sophia Coppola’s movie makes it clear that France’s troubles were a result of generations of mishandling and bad governance but most of the blame was conveniently put on the shoulders of the ‘ insensitive foreign Queen’ by the insular French noblemen.
As I left the theatre, I was filled with a sense of pathos for a young life that was so tragically cut short. I was at the same time full of admiration for Coppolla and her team who finally brought out Mary Antoinette from the shrouded veils of history to be so truly one amongst us.