Ever since her execution during the French Revolution, Queen Marie Antoinette of France has excited the public imagination. There have been numerous movies about her - including a Hollywood movie from 2006 starring Kirsten Dunst, which I have not seen - and these numerous movies may be a measure of how much interest she continues to excite. Generations since then have tried to understand her, and have found that she - like the French Revolution against her - is more complicated than she (at first) appears. It's hard to come up with a simple explanation for why she acted the way she did (and why the public reaction to her was so violent - even bloodthirsty), and I don't pretend to have all the answers. The documentary I'm about to review here doesn't have all the answers, either; but it does provide a good starting point for understanding Marie Antoinette, and it may be able to provide some useful information about whether the PBS biography movie is a good film for you. (It's not for everyone, I should make clear; but for those with an interest in history - and, perhaps, with a strong stomach to go with it - this is a tale that you can learn something from, which tells you a lot about the complicated history of this time.
Francis I - Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, and father of Marie Antoinette
But first, a few warnings about the adult themes covered here, for those who might be made uncomfortable by frank discussions about sex - which is only too necessarily a part of this story. The first of the two episodes is entitled "The Marriage Bed," and the intimate implications of this title accurately portray what much of this episode is about. Marie Antoinette - who was born a princess in Germany - was married by her royal father to Louis-Auguste of France at the age of fourteen - which was not as uncommon in those days as it is now, and certainly would not have scandalized anyone living at that time (as it would people today).
Maria Theresa - Holy Roman Empress, Queen of Germany, and mother of Marie Antoinette
Both of her parents back in Germany - particularly her mother, the only one of the two still alive on her wedding day - had impressed upon her the importance of producing an heir. This was a duty she knew she had to attend to quickly, before age (or potential misfortune) set in; but the problem was that her fifteen-year-old husband was unwilling to cooperate in this endeavor - he had a deplorable lack of libido, it seems; and no one - least of all her - knew quite why. The result was that the first seven years of their marriage produced no children (or even attempts to have any), and Europe was left scratching its collective head at why this royal marriage had no children. (This is not to say that Marie Antoinette didn't try to convince him to cooperate - she was a skilled flirt, and she tried desperately to get him to attend to his end of the bargain; but the awkward young prince shied away from the subtle hints of his young and enthusiastic wife.)
Joseph II, brother of Marie Antoinette
This is not to say that he didn't love her or care about her - on the contrary, there is evidence that he cared for her very deeply; and that there was another reason why he was reluctant to carry out his duties. It was Marie Antoinette's brother (pictured above), actually, who found out the reason; since he befriended the young Louis XVI (now the reigning king of France) well enough to be trusted with the secret behind the king's reluctance. King Louis XVI, it seems, had a medical condition (whose specifics I will not elaborate on - although the documentary does elaborate on them); and the physical pain had kept him from accepting the advances of his eager young wife. After this vital conversation with his wife's brother, it seems, he got over this important hurdle with an important medical procedure; and not long after that, the marriage was consummated and produced children. (This is why I said earlier that the adult themes are only too necessarily a part of this story - the fate of countries often depends on these little soap operas, and more than one crisis has been caused by a king's libido - or, in this case, lack thereof.)
Louis XVI, the King of France that Marie Antoinette married
If the details of this story make you uncomfortable, you may find the first episode somewhat unpleasant to watch; since it is aptly titled "The Marriage Bed" (with no depictions of sex, but a level of verbal detail that young children should not be exposed to - comparable to the detail of these previous paragraphs, actually). The second episode is quite different, though, as this discusses the French Revolution - and the queen's considerable involvement in it, which is the part I really wanted to write about. The French suspected Marie Antoinette from the beginning, for a number of different reasons. One was that she was born a German, and was thus a foreigner in this French court - not a small thing, given the considerable distrust between the French and the Germans. (This very distrust, in fact, was actually the reason for her being married off to the young Louis to begin with; because the marriage was supposed to bring the countries together). Her loyalties were suspected, and her habits were scrutinized - a scrutiny that was painful for her, given her extravagant spending habits (which were quite considerable even by royal standards), and her extreme penchant for gambling - a gambling habit that often cost her vast sums of money, because she didn't always win (to put it mildly) - and her losses often had to be paid for by increased taxes, arranged by her dutiful husband King Louis XVI. These taxes were not always well-received by the peasants, who didn't like footing the bill for the queen's extravagance, and these must have played at least a part in the later rebellion against her.
Marie Antoinette herself
Her image problems ran beyond her financial issues, though - she was accused by a number of people of being a scarlet woman, whose supposed "exploits" were depicted in a number of cartoons of that time. Whether she really was running around in this way is open to some debate; but true or not, the charges of infidelity continued to haunt the queen; and the scandals they brought undoubtedly contributed to her growing unpopularity in France. The stories of mob violence here are fairly graphic and disturbing, with some fairly demented acts (like displaying heads on stakes) that show the depravity of the mobs of this time. (Some cautions may be in order here about the intensity of the violence, which may challenge the stomach of people unaccustomed to history's violent side.)
Marie Antoinette's trial, 1793
At her trial, the queen was charged with treason to France - and specifically, with spying for her native Germany. As it turns out, she really did spy for them; although there was ironically no evidence available at the time to support this. (As one of the commentators - Simon Schama, actually - said in this film, every time information about the war between France and Germany came to her ears, it was "1-800-VIENNA"; with a dutiful letter to her family back in Germany, telling them all about it.) One by one, the list of charges came against her; and the grievances and pent-up frustrations of the past few years were all expressed in a bloodthirsty clamor to kill the royals. Her husband was the first to go, followed by Marie Antoinette herself nine months later - both killed by the guillotine, the new technology for beheading. The violence for which the French Revolution was so well-known had claimed its two most famous victims; and a long period of anarchy followed, known as the Reign of Terror - which was far worse than anything the king and queen had ever done.
The queen's execution by guillotine, 1793
What was her legacy, and what is history's judgment of her? A lot depends on who you ask; but if you want to form your own opinion, this documentary may provide you with the information to do so. It is a great documentary in the style of David Grubin, although some cautions about violence and adult themes are warranted.
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The French Revolution (History Channel)
Napoleon miniseries (PBS)
"Elizabeth" (Queen Elizabeth I of England)