I just saw Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” a film that manages to be lightweight, ahistorical, and yet weighted with deep truths about royalty all at once. How does it pull off this bizarre trifecta? Well, by taking as its subject a female royal: while kings, emperors, and tsars were leaders of nations, the women who wore crowns were almost unanimously empty vessels; their purpose in life was to be a decorative womb. (There are, of course, some very notable exceptions – Elizabeth I in England, Marie-Therese of Austria, Catherine the Great, etc – but they are not typical.)
Hilary Mantel, who has recently made her way to the very top of my list of favorite writers (“A Place of Greater Safety” is the most phenomenal book I have read in a long, long time), takes on this topic in relation to Britain’s current royal womb, Kate Middleton – the resulting essay is a fascinating look at gender, monarchy, and history.
“Marie Antoinette” doesn’t offer much in the way of historical depth; a viewer does not come away impressed by the queen’s inner life. But that’s because Marie Antoinette was made exceptional only by her circumstance, by her title and by the swirling events of the revolution around her. She was a creature of artifice, but then, artifice was all that was ever expected of her – in spite of the demands of kingship most male royals were unexceptional too, but aristocratic women were even more limited in their opportunities to access greatness. Marie Antoinette was vilified and executed as a symbol, just as – more than two hundred years later – we are not interested in the inner workings of Kate Middleton’s mind or heart, but only the images – the symbol – of her expanding belly. If these women lack dimension, it is because we have forbidden them to be more.