Louis XVI, the pitiful king

All but forgotten today, Van Dyke’s 1938 film “Marie-Antoinette” starring Norma Shearer and Robert Morley bears a second look for those students of the French Revolution who seek another perspective on Louis XVI, one closer to the image favored by his contemporaries. The clip featured here, showing the first encounter of Louis (then Dauphin) and the archduchess Marie-Antoinette, includes many of the themes that would dominate early 19th-century accounts of the king’s demise. In these few minutes, one already espies those elements which would cause his undoing: the scandalous intrigues involving his brother le Comte d’Artois and especially the conspiracies launched by his duplicitous cousin (and would-be heir to the throne), le Duc d’Orléans. Louis comes across here much as he does in period fiction, such as Mme Guénard, Irma (1799-1800); Regnault-Warin, Le Cimetière de la Madeleine (1800-01); and Roussel, Le Château des Tuileries (1802): he is a bashful, awkward presence in public, and painfully aware of that shortcoming. What saves him in this film, as in the novels noted above, is his role as tender-hearted father to his children-people, and his decency towards the voluble queen. We are not claiming that this film is closer to reality than other modern remakes by Sofia Coppola or Ettore Scola, merely that Van Dyke’s sympathetic portrayal of Louis XVI echoes with greater accuracy some of the most widely-read French fictions of the late 1790s-early 1800s.
P.S. Did we mention that Louis’s speech is an absolute howler? Robert Morley was never more hilarious, or more perfectly cast, than in this succulent role of the pitiful king.


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