Monday, January 08, 2007

Thoughts on monarchy and the queen who lost her head, as well as the one who didn't

This, of course, is the queen who didn't lose her head, the same one I was so close to on July 9, 1976, that I could photograph her with only a medium telephoto (105mm F2.5 Nikkor) on a Nikon FTn. We were in New York for the Bicentennial festivities and lined up early to watch her procession up Wall Street to Trinity Church, to collect the back rent from the church, which was set up in 1697 by a royal charter and is still governed by it. The outstanding balance was a quaint and symbolic 279 peppercorns.
Trinity Parish was established in 1697 by a royal charter from King William III and remains today one of a handful of institutions in this country that are still governed by such an instrument. The charter called for an annual quittent to the king of “one Pepper Corne as desired,” but the crown, it seems, never desired it. (Nonetheless, in 1976, when Queen Elizabeth II visited the church during the bicentennial celebrations, the church voluntarily coughed up the back rent: 279 peppercorns.)
I had never been much of a fan of the British royal family, but when Elizabeth and her entourage -- Prince Philip not alongside her, but several steps behind, as protocol dictates -- passed within ten feet of where we stood I was just stunned. Diana Spencer had not yet entered her life, and the fairy tale turned nightmare that was to be the story of their relationship still lay in the future. She was radiant. The word "regal" didn't begin to do her justice. There was an aura about her, and her face seemed to glow with its own pearly light. Partly, it was a trick of makeup and the hazy light of a New York morning. Mostly, though, the aura came from within, illuminated by 1,000 years of British history. Briefly, I was seized by the desire to fall to my knees and pledge eternal fealty. The divine right of kings started to make sense, and ever so briefly, before the moment passed, I became an instant royalist.

I couldn't help but think about the old encounter this weekend, when we saw two movies about two different queens, Stephen Frears' "The Queen" and Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette." Helen Mirren is astonishing in the title role of the former. They should just give her the Oscar now and be done with it. They are two very different films, and while it may be unfair to compare them directly, the intensity, nuance and complexity of Frears' movie about Elizabeth II and the death of Diana underscores what seems to be missing in Sophia Coppola's light-as-air confection -- to me and to most critics other than the NYT's A.O. Scott.
It may be tempting to greet “Marie Antoinette” with a Jacobin snarl or a self-righteous sneer, since it is after all the story of the silly teenager who embodied a corrupt, absolutist state in its terminal decadence. But where’s the fun in such indignation? And, more seriously, where is the justice? To say that this movie is historically irresponsible or politically suspect is both to state the obvious and to miss the point.
A bit much, that. If Coppola had filmed Greek tragedy the way she filmed the tragic events of the French revolution, she might have filmed "Oedipus Rex" as a bittersweet love story that ended before the protagonist found out the woman he was sleeping with was his mother.

For a more perceptive, savvy and rounded work of fiction about monarchy and revolution in the same era, you might want to check out Susan Sontag's novel, The Volcano Lover. One of the central characters is Marie Antoinette's sister, Marie Caroline, the Queen of Naples. Like her sister, she and her husband, King Ferdinand, flee for their lives from a revolution. Unlike her sister, they escape and later return to preside over a bloody restoration in which thousands are massacred with the aid of the British fleet, Admiral Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador. Like Coppola's film, Sontag's book is also about an elite social class that lives at a total remove from the lives of everyday people. But unlike Coppola, she includes shadows and undertones, and some sense of life outside the court.


Reel Fanatic said...

Having just adored Sofia's first two movies, I sincerely wanted to go with for "Marie Antoinette," but I just couldn't get there .. though it was all done with her usual dose of grandiose style, I couldn't help but be bored to tears in that 45-minute-or-so stretch that could be called birthing rituals of the young and noble .. Dame Mirren, however, was just sublime in The Queen

Madison Guy said...

Reel Fanatic, I know just what you mean. I was wild about "Lost in Translation," thought it was a beautiful film. I also wanted to like "Marie Antoinette." And, in fact, it was visually ravishing. But so much was lacking.