The Queen and the Chevalier
Among the rich cast of female characters in the drama of the French Revolution, which includes such figures as the eccentric feminist pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges and the idealistic assassin Charlotte Corday, none has captivated the cultural imagination as much as Marie Antoinette. The ill-fated queen has been caricatured as a narcissistic spendthrift whose supposed callous remark about protesters demanding bread, “Let them eat cake”—debunked many times over—was long taken as a symbol of everything wrong with the ancien régime. She has attracted sympathy as a woman who suffered a precipitous descent from opulence and glamour to degradation, imprisonment, and finally execution in front of a jeering mob—and who handled extreme adversity with far more grace than she had handled power and wealth.
She has also fascinated historical mystery buffs as a figure of lingering enigmas: Two years ago, the report that X-ray technology had uncovered scrubbed portions of Antoinette’s correspondence with her alleged lover, the Swedish diplomat Count Axel Fersen, sparked a flurry of interest but didn’t quite settle the question of whether they ever went beyond a platonic romance.
Marie Antoinette has also been the subject of numerous cinematic portrayals. Hers was a life story made for Hollywood, and Hollywood obliged, most notably in the 1938 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer romantic extravaganza starring Norma Shearer, which had only a tenuous relation to history but was a big hit. More recently, Sofia Coppola’s controversial, intentionally modernized and stylized 2006 biopic was both praised for its fresh approach and criticized for its anachronism; its heroine, played by Kirsten Dunst, sometimes came across like a 2000s California teenager in eighteenth-century costumes.
Now, PBS wades into the same waters with a Marie Antoinette drama series, a joint production by the BBC and France’s Canal+, whose eight-episode first season started airing in the United States last month and wraps up on this weekend. By odd coincidence, its U.S. airing coincides with the opening of a film that could be seen as a crossover of sorts: Chevalier, a historical drama about the black (or biracial) virtuoso musician and composer Joseph de Boulogne, the chevalier de Saint-Georges. Saint-Georges, who was a part of Marie Antoinette’s inner circle, is a recurring character in the BBC/PBS series; Marie Antoinette plays a rather significant role in Chevalier. One could also say that the show and the film are united by a common thread of approaching an eighteenth-century biography from twenty-first-century perspectives on sexual and racial politics: The creators of Marie Antoinette have talked about a “feminist” retelling of Marie Antoinette’s life while Chevalier tells the story of a brilliant black man’s accomplishments and struggles in eighteenth-century Europe. How successfully they wed modern politics to the period setting is another question.
Marie Antoinette, the eight-episode series created by Deborah Davis, covers Antoinette’s life between her departure for France as the Austrian bride of then-dauphin Louis-Auguste in 1770 and the birth of her own son the dauphin in 1781. It is heavily fictionalized and in some ways as modernized as the Coppola version. But it also manages to have an authentic core thanks to its genuine empathy for its subjects and its superb visual style—and to equally superb performances, above all those of Emilia Schüle as Antoinette; Louis Cunningham as her husband Louis-Auguste, the future Louis XVI; and James Purefoy as his grandfather Louis XV, Papa Roi to his family.
While the show sometimes acknowledges larger world events, its main focus is Versailles as a toxic stew of intrigue, power plays, and extreme family dysfunction. Spying—picked locks, purloined letters, peeping and eavesdropping—is ubiquitous, as are poison-pen notes. It’s a snake pit camouflaged in luxury and elegance, and “Toinette,” dropped into it as a spirited child bride, must navigate the deadly terrain virtually alone. Her husband, an awkward teenager too scared to talk to her, is no help at all. Her brother-in-law the Comte de Provence starts out as friendly and charming but quickly turns vicious—not without reason, since any of her male offspring would be a threat to his place in the line of succession to the throne. Her husband’s aunts, the king’s spinster daughters, are creepily malevolent.
Papa Roi, a boisterous bon vivant who can also be ruthless, seems benignly paternal but shows disturbing glimpses of lecherous interest in his nubile granddaughter-in-law; an initial friendship with the royal mistress, the notorious Comtesse du Barry, sours into a nasty rivalry. (That early friendship, by the way, is pure invention; the later tensions caused by Antoinette’s insistence on snubbing the maîtresse en titre, not only a commoner by birth but an ex-courtesan, are historical fact.) The Austrian ambassador, the French-born Comte de Mercy, is kind and supportive, but his priority is to defend Austria’s interests and those of Antoinette’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa; she cannot entirely trust him, and he keeps trying to curb her freewheeling ways. The Princesse de Lamballe, at least, is a genuinely devoted friend; but the two women’s affection for each other soon breeds damaging rumors of a lesbian liaison.
Davis’s Versailles is both a stuffy hothouse and a forbiddingly chilly impersonal space where danger lurks in every corner. The first episode opens with Antoinette waking up after her (sexless) wedding night and wandering outside the bedroom in a scene that deliberately evokes a horror-film atmosphere; after an extended flashback, we return to that scene at the end of the episode, getting a full sense of how trapped and terrified the new dauphine feels in her inhospitable new home.
Schüle, a Russian-born German actress who was 29 at the time of the filming, makes a surprisingly convincing teenager (her character is 14 at the start of the season, 26 at the end). The show’s young Antoinette is by turns brash and vulnerable, romantic and headstrong, sentimental and scared. She yearns for freedom and love; she bristles at the onerous etiquette at Versailles, far more rigid and exacting than the rules at the Viennese court, and tests the patience of her dragon-lady chaperone the Comtesse de Noailles, whom she nicknames “Madame Etiquette.” (The two really did clash fiercely, though I doubt the comtesse ever slapped Antoinette as she does here in the first episode.) Yet Antoinette also feels guilty about disappointing her formidable mother. Gradually and grudgingly, she comes to accept the duties of queenship as her life’s calling. Schüle, who is highly effective in her dramatic scenes but is also a gifted comic actress—there is a particularly inspired moment in which she bucks and neighs in imitation of a horse while lamenting her neglectful husband’s excessive equestrian passions—makes it all work.
Newcomer Louis Cunningham is almost as much of a standout in the role of Louis. (Trivia: Cunningham not only shares his character’s name but also comes from actual royalty. His great-grandmother was Charlotte, the grand duchess of Luxembourg.) While the 1938 film portrayed Louis as kindhearted but hopelessly addled and Coppola’s version was an emotionally distant nerd mainly interested in his mechanical hobbies, the portrayal in the BBC/PBS series is far more nuanced and sympathetic. At the start, Louis is a scared and inexperienced teenager like Antoinette herself; only, where she is clumsy but vivacious and outgoing, he is clumsy, shy, and withdrawn, far more at ease with pigeons than people. He is genuinely smitten with his bride but so intimidated that for a while she thinks he finds her repugnant. Their gradual and tentative bonding—the warm and sweet moments, the setbacks, the frustrations, the growing mutual devotion—is well-paced and moving: you genuinely root for things to work out for these kids, and try not to think about how it’s going to end.
One of the season’s main storylines has to do with the tensions caused by Louis and Antoinette’s famous seven-year-long failure to consummate their marriage. It’s not often that you see a “will they or won’t they” dynamic between a married couple. Obviously, we know they will, but it takes some getting there; it takes, in particular, extremely awkward marriage counseling with Toinette’s blunt-but-likable big brother (and Holy Roman Emperor) Joseph, ably played by the Belgian actor Jonah Bloquet.
Unfortunately, toward the end of this arc, the series makes a major misstep with two fictitious and misbegotten plot devices. First, there’s the faux suspense of a looming divorce, with Antoinette facing confinement in a dreary convent. (In fact, Catholic France did not have legal divorce until the Revolution; while an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, there’s no way that the French court would have agreed to a de facto admission of sexual incapacity by the reigning monarch—or that the court of Vienna would have allowed an Austrian archduchess to be forcibly reduced to the status of a cloistered nun.) Then, just as the divorce papers are ready, Louis saves the day, with Joseph’s help, by taking lessons from a prostitute and using his newly acquired skills to complete the conjugal union. Not only did this never happen (all it actually took, apparently, was an explainer from Joseph on the mechanics), it’s a cringey cliché whose essential sexism is startlingly at odds with the show creators’ feminist pretensions. Besides, can’t poor Louis be allowed the distinction of being very possibly the only fully monogamous male in the eighteenth-century French upper class?
Tampering with history is, of course, inevitable in a series like this. Some of the fictionalizing works well: for instance, making the playwright Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, the future author of The Marriage of Figaro, Louis’s confidant and spy in Versailles. (Beaumarchais, a remarkable man whose biography would make a great drama series in its own right, really was a spy for the French crown, but his spying had more to do with foreign affairs—and, in particular, French support for the American colonies—than with court intrigue.) Plot lines in which Louis’s brother Provence and his wife Joséphine scheme to undermine Antoinette almost certainly ratchet up the couple’s subversive stratagems considerably above the real facts but still work well. (One Joséphine subplot I assumed was made up—a faked pregnancy and miscarriage—turned out to be essentially true.) Making the Queen’s favorite the Duchesse de Polignac a spy for the king’s chief counselor Maurepas does not feel out of place for the theme of the Versailles snake pit where, Antoinette’s mother warns her, “No one is what they seem.” And while the real-life Polignac almost certainly did not have threesomes with her husband and her reputed longtime lover the Comte de Vaudreuil as shown in the series, you can never go wrong with too much wantonness among the ancien régime aristocracy.
On the other hand, the brief arc in which Louis XV’s plans to marry du Barry are cut short by his illness and death is not only fictional and gratuitous but stretches the suspension of disbelief to breaking point. “The king can do whatever he likes,” sneers Louis when challenged by Provence; except he can’t, not when it comes to marrying a former sex worker and actually making her queen of France, as Louis XV proposes here. (It’s the equivalent of having a high-level American politician in 1950 announce his domestic partnership with a gay lover.) The excision of two of Louis XVI’s three siblings, the Comte d’Artois (the future Charles X, who finally ran the Bourbon monarchy into the ground in 1830) and Princess Elisabeth (later Antoinette’s cellmate in the Temple fortress) feels odd. And at the end of the season, the writers seem to be going in the unfortunate direction of giving Louis’s cousin Philippe d’Orléans (here known by his other title, the Duc de Chartres) a personal vendetta against the royal couple as the motive for his later involvement in the Revolution.
On the plus side, the show does an excellent job of capturing not only the poisonous atmosphere of court life but the extent to which, in the world of the old monarchies, the personal is the political in the worst possible way. We really do feel that the fate of armies and countries depends on the twists and turns of a soap opera from hell (“As the Crown Turns”?). At one point, in a minor subplot with eerie echoes of both the current moment and the First and Second World Wars, the deterioration of Antoinette’s relationship with her father-in-law threatens the French-Austrian alliance even as a crisis requires an urgent response: “Russia and Prussia are poised to invade Poland.”
As for the story of the royal marriage, it gets back on track after the aforementioned stumbles. This is the first time, I think, that Louis and Marie Antoinette’s relationship has been portrayed onscreen as a passionate love story—and it blossoms into nothing less than that for a while, with the couple’s discovery of mutually gratifying sex and the thrill of first-time parenthood. We also see the continuing strains placed on the marriage by the Versailles piranha tank, by Antoinette’s retreat into her own deceptively idyllic world of the Petit Trianon palace and her circle of friends, and by her attraction to the dashing, sensitive Fersen. That storyline, which gives the writers plenty of freedom because of its inherent ambiguity, is handled with commendable finesse.
The knowingly anachronistic dialogue (Joseph, at one point, uses the phrase “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” in a discussion with Louis on the subject of conjugal relations) can grate at times but also has its genuinely smart moments. But it’s the acting and the visuals that make this show worth watching. Besides Schüle and Cunningham, Purefoy, who was superb as Antony in HBO’s Rome, is a joy to watch as the old king. He is especially memorable in an early scene with Du Barry in which he goes from amorous to vicious in a split second when his mistress casually insults young Louis’s manhood—and in a late scene when, ill and in bed, he asks a frightened Louis whether he’s ready to reign and scoffs bitterly and wistfully, “Did you think that I was immortal?”
Gaia Weiss makes an impressive Du Barry, sensuous, brazen and yet vulnerable in her awareness of how precarious her situation is; Jack Archer is a suitably nasty Provence, complemented by Roxane Duran as his wife whose mousy exterior hides a spine (and claws) of pure steel; and Oscar Lesage endows Chartres with charisma and a touch of dangerousness. Marthe Keller is uniformly excellent as Maria Theresa. A special mention must go to the British actress Jasmine Blackborow as Antoinette’s friend Lamballe, so genuinely kind, warm and fragile that those familiar with history will shudder at the thought of her eventual fate (foreshadowed in a wonderfully eerie scene in which Antoinette, in labor and about to pass out from pain, starts having bizarre hallucinations).
So is Marie Antoinette a feminist retelling of the famous queen’s life? If so, it’s certainly not in a heavy-handed way; while there are a couple of scenes in which Antoinette chafes at being expected to play the gracious wife and rails against male selfishness and insensitivity, the series avoids the trap of allocating goodness and badness by gender. Some of the worst pressure on Antoinette comes from her mother (whose letter after the birth of Antoinette’s daughter admonishes her to “stop wasting time” and produce the long-awaited heir to the throne); meanwhile, the series makes it clear that Louis—who has to field aggressive questions about when he is going to finally deflower his wife and at one point has to submit to a genital inspection in front of Papa Roi to make sure he is fully functional—is as much a victim of onerous expectations as Antoinette. Nor does the show take the route of making its heroine an all-around progressive: her reaction to learning about Du Barry’s notorious past is pure slut-shaming. Assuming that the show intends to follow Antoinette’s story all the way to its depressing end, it will be interesting to see the extent to which it will acknowledge her ultrareactionary turn from the very start of the Revolution.
The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an eighteenth-century French composer, virtuoso violinist, and champion fencer who happened to be the son of a nobleman and a formerly enslaved African woman from Guadeloupe, plays a minor but memorable role in Marie Antoinette, ably and exuberantly played by the Afro-European actor Yoli Fuller who is clearly having fun with the role. (In one scene, the visiting Joseph attends a premiere of Saint-Georges’s opera with Antoinette and declares, “Mozart is right to be touchy.”)
The new film Chevalier, directed by Steven Williams with a screenplay by Stefani Robinson, makes Saint-Georges its main subject—and a fascinating subject he certainly is. Born in 1745 on his father’s plantation in Guadeloupe, Saint-Georges was brought to France by his father at the age of 7 and placed in an academy; at the age of 16, he became an officer of the King’s bodyguard in Versailles and became known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after the name of his father’s plantation.
A brilliant fencer who regularly gave fencing exhibitions in various halls in Paris, he also won acclaim as a violinist and composer and became a notable figure at the royal court; Marie Antoinette, in particular, was an enthusiastic admirer of his music, and one of his operas, La partie de chasse (The Hunting Party) was performed by her special request at the royal chateau at Marly after its successful premiere in Paris in 1778. A decade later, Saint-Georges, who was close to the liberal Duc d’Orléans, embraced the Revolution; while he continued to perform, he also became a captain and then a colonel in the French Revolutionary army and eventually commanded an “American” cavalry legion that included a company of black and mixed-race soldiers.
During the Reign of Terror, Saint-Georges found himself in disfavor and eventually in prison due to his proximity to the wrong people (including d’Orléans); while the fall of the Jacobins saved his life, his military and musical career never recovered, and he died in near-obscurity in 1799. In the nineteenth century, his name largely sank into oblivion. It’s hard to say to what extent this had to do, as the film suggests at the end, with racist erasure: the same thing happened to numerous once-acclaimed white composers from his time, such as Jean-Philippe Rameau and Antonio Salieri, largely because their music was left behind by the rise of Romanticism. The claim in the film’s closing titles that some of Saint-Georges’s compositions were destroyed on Napoleon’s orders in conjunction with the restoration of slavery in the French colonies does not appear to have any basis in fact: while many of Saint-Georges’s works were indeed lost or survive only in fragments, this too was not uncommon in the era.
Saint-Georges was never entirely forgotten: He was the subject of an 1839 biographical novel by Roger de Beauvoir, published with a preface explicitly holding him up as a real-life rebuttal of notions of black inferiority. But his proper rediscovery, including revived performances of his extant work, only began in the twenty-first century amid a new interest in racial justice. The new film is obviously a part of that revival—and its main focus is on the racism Saint-Georges experienced as a black man in eighteenth-century France.
That racism was unquestionably, and unsurprisingly, real. The fencing master Alexandre Picard, whom Saint-Georges defeated while still a student, had been reportedly mocking him as “La Boëssière’s mulatto,” referring to the head of the fencing academy. (This incident is shown in the film.) In 1776, when he was up for the post of director of the Académie royale de musique (i.e., the Paris Opera), three of the opera’s leading ladies petitioned Marie Antoinette to prevent this appointment, saying that “their honor and delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Louis XVI resolved the dicey situation by taking the opera back under royal control and appointing one of his own officials as its director, and Saint-Georges remained on perfectly friendly terms with the court and the queen; but one cannot doubt that the slights wounded and angered him.
The script for Chevalier, however, gives this story a heavy-handed treatment. In this version, the petition from the leading ladies refers to Africans as “subhuman,” and the opera directorship is given to the German composer Christoph Gluck, who was in reality Saint-Georges’s friend but is here depicted as his slyly racist rival. In the ensuing confrontation, Saint-Georges is called a monkey and jeeringly told to go back where he came from. Meanwhile, his lover the Marquise de Montalembert, a singer with a tyrannical husband, bears a dark-skinned baby which the husband kills. (This storyline is partly based on gossip published long after Saint-Georges’s death—and sourced, according to a 2004 biography, The Black Mozart, to a scandalmongering diarist unfriendly to Saint-Georges.) Just as Saint-Georges’s illusions of being accepted as an equal by upper-class French society collapse, his mother Nanon, who has arrived from Guadeloupe after many years of separation, helps him get in touch with his authentic black identity; he starts wearing his hair in cornrows and incorporates drumming into his music. (In reality, Saint-Georges’s father brought Nanon to France, where she became a free woman since slavery was forbidden on French soil, two years after Joseph was placed in school; he also left them both comfortable annuities rather than disinheriting his illegitimate mixed-race son as in the film.)
In an even more dubious twist, the movie essentially suggests that Saint-Georges played an instrumental role in bringing about the French Revolution—with help from his friend Philippe d’Orléans—as a result of his racial awakening. Meanwhile, his role in the “American” legion is reduced to one line in the after-titles (with no mention of his imprisonment, or of d’Orléans’s execution, under the Reign of Terror).
The problem isn’t that Chevalier’s central narrative is largely fictional; so is that of Mozart’s persecution by Salieri in Amadeus. Nor is it that the film exaggerates racism in eighteenth-century France; there is no doubt that, even aside from slavery in the colonies, many black men and women living in France experienced racism every bit as overt and brutal as the movie’s Saint-Georges does. The problem is that the story in Chevalier relies on hackneyed tropes and is ultimately flattened by its modern lens. The “presentism” becomes especially absurd when the crowds in the unrest leading to the Revolution are shown protesting in the streets with hand-written placards—this, in a society where about half of the population, and doubtless much more among the poor, still couldn’t read.
(Oddly, despite its intersectional framework in which equal rights for women also get a perfunctory nod, the film omits a real part of Saint-Georges’s life that has a remarkably modern theme: his friendship with an actual “gender-diverse” person, the Chevalier or Chevalière d’Éon, a spy and diplomat who lived for five decades as a man and three decades as a woman. Saint-Georges’s fencing matches with “Mademoiselle d’Éon,” hampered by skirts but still highly effective, were sufficiently famous to have been commemorated in a painting.)
The story of the man French abolitionist Henri Grégoire called “the Voltaire of music” definitely deserves better. However, Chevalier is lifted above its script by the superb performance of Kevin Harrison as Saint-Georges: He not only gives the film a vibrant and truly electrifying energy—starting with the opening scene in which Saint-Georges challenges Mozart to a violin “duel” and wins—but creates a three-dimensional character both believably human and believably brilliant. His Saint George is by turns cocky and vulnerable, tender and sarcastic, angry and anguished. A lovely turn from the British actress Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo as Nanon, radiating both warmth and strength, is also worth mentioning; so is the score by Kris Bowers adapted from surviving fragments of Saint-Georges’s music.
The late eighteenth century has a strong hold on the modern imagination because, in many ways, it is the beginning of the modern world as we know it. It is also a world in flux, a world of shifting identities and rapidly evolving norms. It makes perfect sense to use it as a mirror for present-day ideas and issues—though, to really work, the story must retain enough historical reality to be a bridge between eras, not just a transplantation from the twenty-first century to the eighteenth.
Marie Antoinette and Chevalier do this with varying degrees of success. If nothing else, the series shows that the life of France’s doomed queen is still worth telling while the movie puts a man of outstanding achievement more firmly back on the cultural map. Maybe in the near future, another miniseries will give Saint-Georges his due as a musician and revolutionary figure in more ways than one.