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Queen is still royally divisive

October 13, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Who owns history? And, more to the point, who owns Marie Antoinette?

Though they're not usually phrased that way, those questions have swirled around Sofia Coppola's quietly exuberant new film about the doomed young French queen (only 18 when she ascended the throne, 37 when she was executed) since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to some scattered -- and widely misunderstood -- boos.

For the displeasure came not, as might be expected, from the French critics -- who'd already seen the film and whose generally positive notices were already on record in Le Film Francais, the French trade paper -- but from political types who had an ax to grind about the film's portrait of the woman in question.

Hard as it is to believe in the U.S., a country whose citizens have a hard time getting upset about what happened last week, much less centuries ago, the French take their history very seriously. And the film's undeniably sympathetic look at Marie Antoinette goes contrary to a fierce cultural bias against the queen that, according to the excellent recent PBS documentary, also called "Marie Antoinette," made her "the most hated woman in France" and may even have been one of the factors that led to the French Revolution.

In English-speaking countries, Coppola's film has to some extent had to face a related bias, unhappiness that it doesn't conform to a tyranny of expectations and preconceptions that the film isn't weighty or serious enough in tone to take on such a fraught historical situation. Which was exactly the point.

Speaking in Cannes before the film's premiere, Coppola emphasized her determination to do a historical movie "in my style, to make it my own film, something I wanted to see. That was the most important thing, not to fall into the habits of generic period movies, not to get pushed into 'This is how you should do it.' "

That attitude resulted in a seductive pastel palette inspired by the "sherberty colors" of the celebrated macaroons of Paris confectioner Laduree. And Coppola "never thought twice" about her decision to use modern pop music on a soundtrack that eventually included Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and songs by New Order, the Strokes and the Cure. "I wanted atmospheric, dreamy contemporary music, that kind of teenage girl spirit." By playing a rousing Gang of Four anthem over the opening credits, the film effectively announces that this is going to be a historical drama unlike those we've seen before.

The reason for that is that Coppola, though inspired by Antonia Fraser's magisterial biography, had her own particular take on the Marie Antoinette story, her very specific tone -- "The O.C." set in Versailles -- to impart to the proceedings.

Intrigued by the fact that Marie and her husband, Louis XVI, were young people, ages 18 and 20, when he became king and they entered history's stage, Coppola says she "liked the idea that she was a real girl, someone who didn't like to do schoolwork; that there were all these teenagers running around in Versailles being in charge."

In fact, according to that PBS documentary (now available on DVD), much of the way Coppola depicts Marie Antoinette is quite in line with the facts. Simon Schama, a noted British historian and authority on the French Revolution, says the queen's mother, the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa, thought of her child as "my airhead daughter, the shopaholic," and that once Marie Antoinette became queen, she "collected a group of cheeky Valley girlfriends around her."

Though it sometimes surprises nonprofessionals, historians know that varying attitudes toward and interpretations of history are the very heart of a discipline that values theory and point of view as much as facts.

In truth, the argument swirling around a new book about the Founding Fathers and the writing of the U.S. Constitution, "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different," by Gordon S. Wood, makes just this point.

Setting the ship of American history off on a whole new course was Charles Beard's "Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States," published in 1913, a book that argued that the Constitution was, as one reviewer explains, "a counterrevolutionary document, drafted by aristocrats who wanted a strong national government to protect their investments." Wood, by contrast, argues that this is all wrong, that the Founders, in another reviewer's words, were "a selfless, heroic elite" that "acted with nobility and self-sacrifice." You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Similarly, the arguments about the appropriate way to view Marie Antoinette have been going on for hundreds of years. As historian Schama vividly put it on PBS, "is she a cutie pie or a monster; is she a virgin or is she a whore; is she a dimwit or a Machiavellian desperado?" Like the battle over the Founding Fathers, it's an argument that shows no sign of going away, an argument to which Coppola has added an entertaining and accomplished point of view.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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