The 1938 version of Marie Antoinette, starring the eternal Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer, is far from what you might call "historically accurate." According to the film, Marie and her husband King Louis XVI (Robert Morley) were completely innocent from blame for their part in the French Revolution. It was all some silly misunderstanding involving an expensive necklace that set off the blood thirsty French citizens and (wrongly) sent Marie and company to the guillotine. The film often portrays Marie as this savior of sorts who tries her damnedest to do the right thing but always ends up with the short end of the stick. If anything, this version of Marie Antoinette tries to avoid at all costs associating Shearer with the same woman who famously quipped, "Let them eat cake" when accosted with the rampant starvation in her kingdom. So, as a history lesson, Marie Antoinette fails miserably. But as a tragedy about a helpless woman who sees her beautiful world swiftly crumbling around her, few films then or now can match Marie Antoinette.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Marie Antoinette is how her relationships with her husband and her Swedish lover (Tyrone Power) are developed in a completely atypical manner from both the time it was made and now. When she arrives in Paris after the arrangements for her to marry Louis, Dauphin of France at this point, are made, she is excited about the prospect of marriage. However, she soon discovers that her husband-to-be is a social retard more interested in tinkering with locks than being king. Norma's Marie is disappointed, but she heeds her mother's advice and does her best to find common ground and encourage him like a good wife should. On their second wedding anniversary, he makes Marie a spinning wheel by hand. She marvels at it and acts as if it is the greatest gift she has ever received. When Louis' cousin laughs at the gift and she sees Louis' crushed face, she too is wounded by the insult. There is a bond between these two misfits of the court that continuously grows through the years. They become intimate in a way that is much different than the passionate intimacy that erupts between Marie and the Tyrone Power character. This is intimacy that comes from raising kids and making important decisions that effect a great number of people together. Tyrone Power may be, as the film tries to make him, the one true love of her life, but Louis was the one she could always depend on. It is probably not until their final scene together when Louis has announced his beheading the next morning that Marie finally realizes just how much he has meant to her over the years. "We've been together quite a few years, haven't we?" he asks while trying to comfort her, "You've been very good to me." "It's easy to be good to those we love," she responds back, sobbing into his hand. In a movie which appears to be stuffed to the brim full of artificiality, it is moments like these that prove Marie Antoinette has a heart beating loud and clear underneath all the bustle of giant sets, even larger dresses and a larger than life actress in Norma Shearer.
But even Norma Shearer, an actress I love for always going for broke whenever she's onscreen yet who remains fascinating in both her good and bad performances, knows when to dial it down in Marie Antoinette. Sure, she occasionally lapses into one of her usual "Shearerisms," as when she runs down a flight of stairs with her outstretched arms to meet her lover, but these blips rarely distract from the magic she creates onscreen. This is especially true in the second half when the film gives her some true meat to sink into. There are moments such as the scene where Louis becomes king and Marie, having just returned from leaving her lover, is unresponsive to the news when Shearer is--and I never thought I'd say this about one of her performances--completely natural and without pretense. Her morose mask of a face betrays every feeling she is going through. It's a quietly devastating moment and something unlike I've ever seen Shearer do before. Of course, however, there are scenes when Norma is at her go-for-broke best, highlighting her character's tense state of mind while locked in the Bastille. Not once does she give into her in-bred artificiality. I don't know if becoming a mother had anything to do with this, but any of the later scenes involving her children are excruciating to watch in their vividness. At one point, right after Louis is guillotined, the guards come for Marie's son. She completely loses it and snaps, protecting her child with all her every bone and limb in her . When she is finally convinced to release him, it's like they have pulled the child right from her womb. The moment is difficult to watch but only adds to the richness of Shearer's performance. And instead of becoming a hindrance to the film's emotional core, she becomes the film's heart and soul. Not bad for an actress who supposedly fucked her way to the top. B+