Late September sunlight filters onto the blue velvet furnishings of the jewel-box theater built for Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The painted, original backdrop depicts a rustic farmhouse hearth, and I can just imagine the young queen reveling in her role as a shepherdess while her witty friends and dull husband, French king Louis XVI, applaud politely.
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At the time I was there, the theater was closed to most visitors (it is now open to the public from April 1 through October 31), and I wanted to take full advantage of my access. "Go ahead. Have a good, long look," said Christian Baulez, Versailles' chief conservator.
On the way out, Baulez, who has worked at the former royal palace for four decades, locked the gate with a heavy iron key. "From time to time, you have to visit a spot like the theater when there's no one else around to give the place a chance to trigger an emotional reaction," he said. "You're thinking about other things, then all of a sudden, you're totally surprised. It's a state of grace, an aura you sense—even after 40 years here."
I did not commune with Marie Antoinette's ghost, as some claim to have done. But I had to admit that there is a poignancy about the playhouse and its fantasy world. Less than a decade after the theater's inauguration in 1780, the curtain would come crashing down on the French monarchy and its Austrian-born queen, who seemed to grow in moral stature as she approached the guillotine.
With the possible exception of the Corsican-born Napoleon, another outsider who overstayed his welcome, no one haunts French history like the Hapsburg princess. The frivolous, high-spirited tomboy who arrived at Versailles at age 14 was quickly embraced by her subjects. Yet by the time of her execution 23 years later, she was reviled.
Thrust into a social and political hurricane, Marie Antoinette, biographer Stefan Zweig wrote in the 1930s, was "perhaps the most signal example in history of the way in which destiny will at times pluck a mediocre human being from obscurity and, with commanding hand, force the man or woman in question to overstep the bounds of mediocrity." Ultimately, even Marie Antoinette herself grasped how suffering gave her fortitude. "Tribulation first makes one realize what one is," the queen wrote in August 1791, soon after the royal family's failed escape attempt from their detention in Paris.
Marie Antoinette's fairy tale turned tragedy has spawned biographies, fictionalizations, operas, plays, ballets and memoirs. Even her hairdresser and her executioner published ghostwritten recollections. And, like the 300 gowns the queen ordered each year, the story is a perfect fit for Hollywood. The 1938 film Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer and Robert Morley, is considered a classic of historical melodrama. Now, Sofia Coppola has directed a new interpretation, with Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman in the lead roles. Based largely on British biographer Antonia Fraser's 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the new film, also called Marie Antoinette, was released in the United States last month. "I was struck by the fact that Louis and Marie were teenagers—he was 19 when he was crowned, she was 18—in charge of France at the most vulnerable time in its history," says Coppola. "I didn't set out on a campaign to correct the misperceptions about her; I just wanted to tell the story from her point of view."
Each year millions of visitors flock to Versailles and Fontainebleau, where the queen maintained a second palace, to admire her exuberant tastes in furniture and décor. But it is her furtive love life that arouses the deepest interest—and sympathy. Tarred by pamphleteers for sexual wantonness, she was actually rather prudish, at least according to her brother, Austrian emperor Joseph II. Despite a number of innocent flirtations, she deeply loved—probably with Louis' tacit approval, according to a confidante—only one man: Swedish military attaché Count Axel Fersen.
Although Marie Antoinette initially condescended to her husband, she eventually developed a genuine fondness for him. For his part, Louis was completely devoted to her and never took a mistress, exhibiting a restraint virtually unheard of in an 18th-century French king.
Whatever Marie Antoinette's faults—in addition to her renowned extravagance, she was unable to comprehend the French people's thirst for democracy—she did not respond to news that starving Parisians had no bread by saying: "Let them eat cake." According to Fraser, this monumental indifference was first ascribed, probably also apocryphally, to Maria Theresa, the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV more than a century before Marie Antoinette set foot in France. Still, for more than two centuries, historians have debated whether Marie Antoinette bore the blame for her fate or was a victim of circumstance. Although she remained a fervent supporter of absolute royal power and an unrepentant enemy of democratic ideals, her many acts of compassion included tending to a peasant gored by a stag and taking in a poor orphan boy and overseeing his education. "She was so happy at doing good and hated to miss any opportunity of doing so," wrote Madame Campan, the First Lady of the Bedchamber. The softhearted queen, it seems, hungered more for tenderness than power.