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PBS Home Video presents
Marie Antoinette (2005)

"I have ever believed that had there been no queen, there would have been no revolution."
- Thomas Jefferson

Review By: Ross Johnson   
Published: October 19, 2006

Stars: Blair Brown, Simon Schama, Antonia Fraser
Director: David Grubin

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some mild sexual content)
Run Time: 01h:55m:20s
Release Date: October 10, 2006
UPC: 841887050555
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-B D-

DVD Review

So, maybe Marie Antoinette wasn't so bad after all. "Let them eat cake" is so ubiquitous as a slogan of imperial indifference that I had never stopped to consider the woman behind the (apocryphal) words. Conveniently released just about in time for Sophia Coppola's new film of the same name, Marie Antoinette is PBS's take on the unpopular young queen. Star Wars movies get fast food tie-ins, Coppola gets a PBS doc. All seems right in the world, somehow.

This is a nuanced portrait: Marie Antoinette is neither a heroine nor quite the vapid party girl as she is commonly portrayed. Born in Austria and shipped off to Versailles at a young age to cement an alliance, she became the queen of France to King Louis XVI while in her teens. She had never known any other life but that of the court of her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, and the rituals and extravagances of France were far greater. In spite of her mother's constant pleas, as a teenager she was only interested in dancing, gambling, and theater, simply never having experienced life outside of the palace. At the earliest she was extremely popular with her subjects, but her husband's inadequacies as king and as a lover began to take their toll on her. The situation had grown so dire for the peasant class that a thousand years of deference to the monarchy was beginning to break down, and Louis' weird unwillingness, or inability, to have sex with his wife had the nation wondering when it would see an heir. Rumors began to swirl, and then accusations. Her foreignness, her femininity, and her extravagance were all targets. Soon, she was the subject of some nasty cartoons (who knew the queen could bend like that?) that were half royal porn, half political doggerel. I imagine an 18th-century 7-11 with dirty wood engravings locked up behind the counter...apparently, in the popular mind, if she were a bad queen she must have also been a ho. Though the exact depictions were pretty misogynistic, the spirit of the attacks wasn't entirely unfair. She was spending money like water with complete disregard of the starving throngs. But this documentary makes clear that she wasn't stupid, and not entirely clueless—just very young to be queen, and very insulated. Delighted to become pregnant after seven years of marriage, she did eventually wake up to the reality of her situation, first by putting aside her party-girl ways and then by taking the reigns from her indecisive husband. Her timing was perpetually, tragically bad, however. Her transition to angelic motherhood was too little, too late for her countrymen, and her further evolution to steely defender of the monarchy on brought her fate upon her.

Simon Schama of the A History of Britain shows up, and he's always an animated presence. The other historians and Antoinette-ophiles here acquit themselves nicely. The doc moves briskly through its almost two-hour running time, never becoming overly dull. Part of the success is due to the photography; there's a lot of beautiful footage of some stunning locales: the Hapsburg palace, the gardens of Versailles, and the chambers of Marie Antoinette herself. The producers wisely avoid much reenactment, and instead use (smutty) woodcuts and paintings from the period as well as contemporary locales to illustrate the narration (by actress Blair Brown). History's greatest callous bitch doesn't quite come out smelling like roses, but instead as a clever and often tough girl who was in way over her head from birth.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There's some gorgeous photography here, but its effect is sometimes undercut by a haphazard transfer. Bright daylight shots (of which there are many) look pretty good, but darker images are beset by halos, jitteriness, and some digital artifacting. The problems aren't overwhelming or ruinous, but they do show up throughout. It's a widescreen, nonanamorphic transfer in keeping with its television origins.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is unexceptional, yet there's nothing distracting. The sound is full and clear across both channels.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Not a thing.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

PBS and witer/producer/director David Grubin have produced a mostly straightforward and classy doc that never feels staid nor stale. It's got sex, (engraved) nudity, blood, and a wonderfully nuanced rendering of a queen who was as misunderstood in her own time as now. A little more consistency in the video transfer would be nice, but Marie Antoinette's story is the history of the French Revolution told from the losing side, and it's pretty interesting stuff.


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