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Marie Antoinette

Paramount // Unrated // October 10, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted November 16, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Probably best remembered for both her legendary excesses and the manner of her death, Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen is known to the world and in the history books simply as Marie Antoinette, born an Archduchess of Austria and later becoming the Queen of France. The daughter of Holy Romanic Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria and the 15th of 16 children, she was born at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

Listening to descriptions of her upbringing and the manner in which she was groomed for her place in life seems quite paradoxical; even as a young girl she is described as well heeled, graceful and lovely, yet had a pronounced distaste for reading with a degree of trouble writing. Her tutors make mention of her being far more intelligent than one would presume her to be given her scholastic accomplishments, the problem being her aversion to concentrate and apply herself to doing the work necessary to learn. Her mother, the true ruler of Austria, is depicted as a woman who carries herself as more of a head of state than a mother in regards to the raising of her children.

In that period there were many arranged marriages between royal offspring that were made by families in order to solidify or create a better peace between nations, which was the case between 14 year old Maria Antonia and the grandson of Louis XV, Louis-Auguste- this one with aims to end nearly a century and a half of conflict between Austria and France. On April 19, 1770 the arrangement for this union took place in Vienna's Augustine Church. A sobbing Maria Antonia left Vienna to her mother's parting words, "Farewell, my dearest. Do so much good to the French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel."

As an act of loyalty, Maria Antonia was required to leave all her Austrian possessions behind, down to the clothes she was wearing and including all jewelry the new bride possessed. She moved on to what would be her new home and was conveyed to the palace at Versailles, where she met her future grandfather-in-law, Louis XV and other members of the royal family. Her future husband, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste was shy and plump, and at only 15 years old had no knowledge pertaining to sex or the ways of women in general. The Wedding Mass was celebrated in the Chapelle Royale on May 16 and after a large supper the court conducted the couple to their wedding bed, which had been blessed by the Archbishop of Reims. Unlike today's social custom, what went on in that bedroom was not a secret at all- in fact was to be made public knowledge. What went on was nothing- the two slept. Not only was their marriage not consummated on that night, it was not consummated for years to come, Louis-Auguste becoming shyer and shyer with his wife, though he stated that he adored the woman. He had an affection for hunting and metalwork; his wife wanted to explore a life of pleasure. While he was sleeping at night, Maria was living the kind of lavish existence reserved for the very wealthy, attending ornate costume balls, taking in the opera and gambling away huge amounts of money and amassing debts which were quietly taken care of by her family.

Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette's lives changed suddenly on May 10, 1774 when King Louis XV died of smallpox. New king Louis XVI and his queen reportedly fell to their knees in prayer, Louis saying "Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign." What follows in this 2 hour telling of the life of Marie Antoinette is the story of a woman who helped provoke an uprising that was to become the French Revolution. Having lived a life of such extravagance with no boundaries, she came down to earth too late to avoid the retribution that befell her family. She was a a pawn in a vast political game that in time sent her to the guillotine, charged with the high crime of treason at the age of 37.

Written and directed by David Grubin and narrated by actress Blair Brown, this is a documentary that strives to relate her life from all manner of viewpoints, decadent yet overstated and sympathetic, allowing the woman to emerge in the end as a courageous, sympathetic woman who was born into aristocracy and knew little of any other way of life until it was brutally thrust upon her. With wonderful insights by historians Antonia Fraser, Simon Schama, Evelyne Lever, Antoine de Baecque and Fanny Cosandey and novelist Chantal Thomas we are given many viewpoints and looks into her life both personal and public as well as the state of France in that timeframe. Without the benefit of period photographs or film to employ, Grubin instead makes fine use of several other mediums with which to unfurl this immense story. Dozens of paintings, drawings and portraits are used to bring this era to vivid life, as well as employing reenactments and both film and photographs of the areas of France in which many of the events took place.


Aspect ratio here is 1.78:1 widescreen. With lots of lush, demanding material such as portraits and ornate landscaping, colors appear bright and vivid and sharpness is good. There is an occasional bit of shimmering from time to time but nothing that should deter from enjoying the film.


The only audio track here is English stereo, clear and easy to understand and fine for documentary purposes.


No extras.

Final Thoughts-

For me Marie Antoinette is a bit of a mixed bag. I can easily say that this is not the fault of PBS Home Video nor Gruber's production, who has done is usual fine job here. The documentary itself works on many levels, conveying to the viewer what is probably the best filmed telling of her life and times one could hope to see. My problem was that I simply wasn't terribly interested in the subject matter, nor taking it in over a 2 hour period; no matter how inviting the production itself is, it still seemed to take alot of effort to keep my interest throughout. If you're a history buff who is looking for a solid documentary on Marie Antoinette this selection will be hard to beat, but for most casual viewers I recommend that you rent it.
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