"Let Them Eat Cake!" a New PBS Documentary Examines the Many Myths Surrounding Marie Antoinette, the Last Queen of France, Who Met Her End on the Blade of the Guillotine

USA TODAY, September 2006 | Go to article overview

"Let Them Eat Cake!" a New PBS Documentary Examines the Many Myths Surrounding Marie Antoinette, the Last Queen of France, Who Met Her End on the Blade of the Guillotine


TO TELL THE STORY of Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, better known as Marie Antoinette, is to relive the great revolution that unleashed the forces which shaped our modern world. In his PBS documentary portrait, "Marie Antoinette," filmmaker David Grubin examines the many myths surrounding the last queen of France.

Born Her Imperial and Royal Highness Archduchess Maria on Nov. 2, 1755, she was executed at the height of the French Revolution, Oct. 16, 1793, having produced four children before her death. She is interred with her husband, Louis XVI, whom she married at age 14, in the royal crypt at the Saint Dennis Basilica in Paris.

Going beyond the simplistic tale of how a frivolous sovereign helped provoke the uprising that became the French Revolution, "Marie Antoinette" reveals a tender-hearted, complex woman whose tragic awakening came too late to save her front the guillotine. Without losing sight of the dire inequities in 18th-century France, this documentary presents a surprising portrait in which she emerges as a sympathetic and, in the end, courageous figure.

Narrated by Blair Brown, "Marie Antoinette" weaves together reenactments, photographs, moving images, the Queen's own words, portraits, paintings, and archival material. Interviews with historians and authors explore the ironies of her tragic late. Appearing in the film are biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, New Yorker art and culture critic Simon Schama, novelist Chantel Thomas, and historians Evelyne Lever, Antoine de Baecque, and Fanny Cosandey.

"Marie Antoinette" traces the Queen's journey from the splendors of her childhood in the palaces of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire to her final hours in a squalid French prison cell. From her disastrous marriage, which remained unconsummated for seven years, to her tortured relationship with her iron-willed mother, Antoinette's life was a long series of humiliations. Sacrificed to 18th-century power politics, she arrived in France when she was 14, a naive foreigner hardly prepared for the intrigues of the court at Versailles. Light-hearted, charming, and graceful, she threw her energies into an endless whirl of extravagant parties, never troubling to ask who was paying for the luxuries she took for granted.

Antoinette was an ordinary human being whose destiny was to be married to the King of France at the most crucial moment in the country's history. The revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille found the Queen a ready target for all that was wrong with France--but out of it, she did forge a completely different character. "Tribulation," she said, "first makes you realize who you are."

Her wealth and crown had made her heedless of the poor and the powerless. With new awareness and regal dignity, she mounted the steps of the scaffold, conscious of her failures, doomed by her own tragic flaws, a young woman trapped in a tumultuous moment of history.

"Marie Antoinette" debuts Sept. 25 on PBS. Meanwhile, Sophia Coppola's much anticipated feature film, "Marie Antoinette," with Kirsten Dunst leading a notable cast, is scheduled for theatrical release in October.

RELATED ARTICLE: Sympathy for a queen. …

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