The Queen’s Dream

April 19, 2019

We could, I suppose blame Sofia Coppola. Or more specifically Kirsten Dunst. But my visit to Versailles largely centred around a desire to see the locations used in the 2006 feature film about Marie Antoinette.

It was panned by a lot of critics when it came out, but it captures the hedonism of the French court in the 1780s even while it glosses  historical facts. It’s beautifully shot, and it does show how the youngest daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor Francis I and his formidable wife, Empress Maria Theresa (played, astonishingly, by Marianne Faithfull), had her life planned out for her. It pays re-watching.

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Hapsburg was all of 14 in 1769 when she was married off to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI. Her mother had 15 children in all, but did not explain to young Maria/Marie how they came to be. Louis, too, seems clueless – he was just 15 when they married  – and it was a visit from Marie Antoinette’s elder brother, by then Emperor himself, that was needed to put matters to rights. Their first child, a girl, was born in 1777, and a future Dauphin in 1781.

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Marie Antoinette in human garb at age 16, two years after her marriage.

Marie Antoinette was never liked by the French. There were historical reasons for the French to despise the Austrians, and the French royal family itself was unpopular because of its profligacy, and the poverty of many of the people. France’s royal Capet clan were not so much of the One Per Cent, as of the 0.001 Per Cent of their day. Consider that Versailles, their sprawling palace to the west of Paris, takes in over a million dollars daily today in order to maintain the property. And that’s not counting all the courtiers of the 18th Century. Then figure in French aid to the Americans to fight the British in their war of independence (Marie Antoinette pushed for that support), and all the other expenses of state. No wonder the people rose up.

But the queen herself had no way of escaping her situation. It’s not as if anyone had offered her vocational training for anything other than being royal. Mentally, she could not conceive of being other than what she was, except in symbolic form, or in fantasy. Which is what she did.

Some distance away from the main palace at Versailles is a cluster of less imposing buildings around Le Petit Trianon. This is basically a large house, and it became Marie Antoinette’s retreat from the formality of life in the palace. Catch the dressing scene in the movie to get the point.

Le Petit Trianon was well staffed by servants, while having its own surrounding gardens. But if her affair with the Swedish Count, Axel de Fersen, was a historical fact (and it seems plausible) then probably Le Petit Trianon offered them an early warning system for kingly visits. The house fascinated me, as Versailles proper did not. It has graciousness without absurd excess, at least by the standards of the aforementioned 0.0001 Per Cent. A nearby pavilion offered space for amateur theatricals and other performances, and the gardens offered places to wander, and probably to hide for romantic moments. If she and Fersen were lovers, it would have been at Le Petit Trianon that they became so.

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Le Petit Trianon.

But Marie Antoinette went further, and created her own tiny village, or hameau. My first thought, on seeing her house was that here she’d contacted her inner Hobbit. There were fishing parties with friends on the small lake, and various farm animals to coo and fuss over before they were eaten.

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A place apart – Hameau de la Reine.

The Hameau da la Reine is a whimsical protest against formality and protocol, a refuge for a woman who would probably never touch an actual peasant’s hand, even if she enjoyed playing shepherdess with the sheep and their lambs.

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Contacting her inner Hobbit – the Queen’s House in Hameau de la Reine.

But then, it was probably Count Fersen’s hands that most interested her. Poor Louis, it seems, might have been cuckolded for most of his life. And unlike his womanising forebears, not that bothered by it.

Marie Antoinette was not, as far as the portraits show, a beautiful woman – certainly not in Ms. Dunst’s league. She was conservative, motherly and fond of her children (she adopted four in addition to her natural offspring), and she retained an affection for Austria all her life. No doubt she always spoke with an accent. Increasingly, she became a focus of hatred for the people of France, including much of the aristocracy. Her refusal to restrain her own extravagance didn’t help.

What though, I wonder, would anyone have done in her place? A more worldly woman might have opted to take the side of the everyday people. But the tragedy of royalty, whether it was the House of Hanover running Great Britain around the time of Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs misruling Russia in World War I or the Hohenzollerns in charge of Germany at the same time, was consistent failure to notice that the tide was turning in the mass mind of their subjects. And the queen of France barely had contact with those subjects.

Instead, she opted for her escape outlet, her gracious house and her fantasy hamlet. It was not ultimately a wise decision, and it led to her demise at the guillotine in 1793. Her real sins, though, were foolishness and ignorance rather than any deliberate cruelty. Her hardest sufferings came, at the end, from knowing her husband and friends were being beheaded, and not being allowed to see her children after she was imprisoned.

We’re all responsible for what we choose not to learn, and there were moments towards the end of Louis’ reign that both he and his wife could have seen what was to happen. Their assumption that they could put matters to rights was seriously naive. But the woman living (mostly) in Le Petit Trianon hoped to the end that she could create a life for herself amid its gardens and her fantasy village. The outbreak of revolution in 1789 ended all that.

I still think it was a neat place to live in, as it is to visit. But the desire for a home, as opposed to a house – in Marie Antoinette’s case, a vast palace – was something I wonder if she was ever truly able to realise.

King Louis’ Bling Project

April 19, 2019

This is a blog about Mexico. But since I’m in Paris right now, and I don’t feel like opening a new blog for a visit of a few days, the next few posts will go in here.

Gérard Araud stole my best line about Versailles. Yesterday, as France’s retiring ambassador to the USA, he compared the White House to the court of King Louis XIV, filled (I quote The Guardianwith courtiers trying to interpret the caprices of a “whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed” leader.

Louis was often manipulated, to the resentment of many of his subjects, though he was not uninformed. He was usually a shrewd, ruthless old bird, who set out to Make France Great Again, and actually succeeded. But as I toured the Palace of Versailles, or as much of it as anyone can manage in a single day, I was puzzled by the overall design of it.

It’s enormous, overwhelming even, and parts of the roof and fence are covered in gold leaf, or gold paint. It’s architectural bling on an outrageous scale. There are parts that are lovely, but architect friend have taught me to look at the overall rhythm of a structure. I sensed numerous minuets, a few marches, and a bunch of gavottes. But metrical coherence was lacking.

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The bling-laden forecourt at Versailles. That’s gold on the balconies and roof trim.

Now, although I’d chosen the low season for tourism, I was still sharing the site with around 40,000 other people, and we were not so much visitors as a surge of perplexed humanity edging through the royal apartments. There was little opportunity to savour specific paintings or carvings. I was mostly taken with the architects’ imaginative use of natural, two-coloured stone, which avoided the cliches of much of the painting. That said, for me, anything monumental fails at a certain point because it reaches too far.

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A hall showing France’s victories in giant paintings. The crowd here had thinned to a hundred or less.

There are less grandiose parts of Versailles, few of which I had time to see, though I did admire Marie Antoinette’s quarters. Here, there were paintings not of people fawning over Greek gods, but of her relatives. Whatever her failings, she preferred the human to the superhuman.

But as a beautiful structure in itself, I found Versailles oddly lacking. I don’t mean because it wasn’t really a home, but because it is so enormously overdone, it seems incoherent. It just goes on and on, rather than having a unifying central block, or other architectural focal point.

Notably, it echoes the style of housing seen throughout Paris as well as the town of Versailles outside the gates: a half-dozen storeys, pulling back a little at the top floor to create a rounding out. This gives it the feel of an enormous yet still bourgeois project, livened up with a few dozen Corinthian pillars to underscore the imperial nature of the project. Apparently it was under construction for more than half Louis’ 72-year reign.

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A juxtaposition of architectural styles.

He was a great patron of the arts, and loved ballet, even performing on stage himself numerous times. The parallel with the current occupant of the White House, who can’t even walk between the holes of his golf courses, is therefore not exact. But primarily, Versailles was a political project that accommodated a vast amount of art, as well as being a place of many theatrical and musical performances.

What did I like about it? That’s in the following post.