Reflections on the Revolution in Hollywood: Part I
No, I'm not afraid of you. Nor of the nobles. Nor of the people. Nor of ideas.
The state will last my time. After me, the deluge.
--John Barrymore, Marie Antoinette
Heh. John Barrymore takes such joy in enunciating that above quote that one can be readily forgiven if one's first impulse upon hearing it is to examine the on-screen scenery for teethmarks. And that quote seems especially compelling when you consider that the character John Barrymore was portraying -- King Louis XV -- was not a very likable guy.
Of course, part of the odd fun of the 1938 film version of Marie Antoinette
is the way it takes the well-known story of the French Revolution and tells it from the pov of one of history's least likable characters: Austrian-princess-turned-French-queen Marie Antoinette -- and manages to get away with it at the height of the Great Depression. On paper, such a project should not work. On film, it does -- due in part to such performances as Barrymore's which defy the audience to like them. It does not hurt that lead actress Norma Shearer -- who plays the title character -- can find likable qualities in her character as well. Even English actor Robert Morley -- who plays Marie Antoinette's husband King Louis XVI -- manages to be more sympathetic than one would expect.
Unlike more modern works, Marie Antoinette
does not even pretend to tell a fair and balanced version of the French Revolution. The main person with whom it sympathizes is Marie Antoinette, who is portrayed not so much as the classic callous aristocrat of popular legend but as just another country cousin who got a chance to see the big city of the day -- Paris -- and ultimately paid for it with her life. Though many scenes are told from her point-of-view, few are told from the view of the common people and indeed, what glimpses we get of the French rebels are less than flattering.
Of course, it might be argued that Marie Antoinette
was made in a different time. That back then movie audiences expected a bit of Hollywood glamour and that many movie-goers of the time had little if any interest in seeing on-screen depictions of the type of poverty that they could see for free in real life.
Then again it is not like movie audiences are all that progressive today. There is still a tendency for today's movies to focus on the rich and prosperous and ignore the poor and downtrodden. Indeed, one of the most popular series of movies -- The Hangover
movies -- does not even pretend to portray the poor and downtrodden as anything but yet another obstacle for its protagonists to maneuver around.
If Marie Antoinette
makes one especially bad mistake in the eyes of contemporary movie-goers, it is that it does not even attempt to deny its sympathy with aristocrats like Marie and her husband. There is no pretense about "feeling your pain" or "lifting up the masses" for this film.
Yet in an odd way, Marie Antoinette
's approach seems more honest than I might have expected. Indeed, after seeing all too many modern movies encourage its audiences to cry crocodile tears for the down and out, Marie Antoinette
's celebration of aristocratic disdain seems almost refreshing. Granted, it is not likely that the real-life Marie Antoinette was as likable as her movie counterpart is in this flick. But it would be nice for her sake to think so.
Labels: Aristócratas, Francia, John Barrymore, María Antonieta, Norma Shearer, Películas Clásicas III, Películas Políticas I, Revoluciones, Robert Morley