MARIE ANTOINETTE (Julien Duvivier, W. S. Van Dyke, 1938)

Leslie Fiedler, my doctoral dissertation director, enjoyed telling about a showing of The Birth of a Nation (1915) he attended with a group of Italian communists. Apparently D.W. Griffith so successfully infused the action with his reactionary propaganda that, contrary to their own politics, during the film’s big chase the communists audibly rooted for the K.K.K.! While watching Julien Duvivier and W. S. Van Dyke’s Marie Antoinette, one may be similarly swept away by its ultra-sympathetic portrait of the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, the Austrian archduchess who had married France’s future Louis XVI. Perhaps the 1938 U.S. mindset associated late eighteenth-century Parisians cheering onscreen at public guillotinings with thuggish Nazis on German streets.
     Visually, the film is beautiful. Thank goodness M-G-M production head Irving Thalberg’s death helped doom the original intention to film Marie Antoinette in Technicolor, which would have expunged the black-and-white film’s greatest asset. William H. Daniels, the principal cinematographer, created exquisite dark imagery, with expanses of prophetic blackness in the frames, along with pale, lovely traces of luminosity seemingly emanating from the characters themselves: flickers of light that have been swallowed up by history. Moreover, the opulent sets and costumes, which would have weighed down another film, add value in this instance; shining or glittering, they, too, become haunting “flickers of light.”
     The extramarital romance damages the film’s steadily dynamic rhythm, and Tyrone Power, as usual inept, brings nothing to the role of Marie-Antoinette’s Swedish lover. Nothing inhabits the costumes he wears. In the role of a lifetime, Norma Shearer, Thalberg’s widow, gives her finest, most intricately shaded performance; but the film so showcases and insists upon it that it grows tedious—and, I’m afraid, histrionic and ridiculous.
     Superb: Joseph Schildkraut as the quintessential political opportunist Duke d’Orléans.

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