For opening credits, the film has a simple black background with actors' names in hot pink flashing on the screen (it's deliberately very 80s, and New Wave 80s music plays as the film starts up). In the middle of this, there is a cut to Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) lounging on a silk divan, surrounded by gorgeous pink pastries. She turns to look at the camera, smiles, says absolutely nothing, the camera holds there for a minute, and then the scene switches back for the title and rest of the credits. After the credits are over, the screen goes black.
The black screen then cuts abruptly to drapes being pulled open. It's morning in Marie Antoinette's bedroom in her mother's Austrian palace. Today is the last day she will spend in Austria.
Empress Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithful) narrates that a union between France and Austria is needed for political and military reasons, and a marriage will cement this union. The Empress arranges for her youngest daughter, Marie (Kirsten Dunst), to wed the Dauphin of France, Louis August (Jason Schwartzman), and position herself to become the eventual Queen of France and Navarre. The Empress has many children and plans to install them all around Europe as spouses to the eventual rulers of other countries. This is the family business and much is expected of Marie.
Marie snuggles in the covers with her small pug dog Mopps and doesn't want to wake up. There are scenes of Marie dressing, where she acts like a modern teenager getting ready for a costume party. Her little dog Mopps tries to jump up into her arms.
Marie, dressed simply and looking very happy, meets with her mother for some advice. The Empress warns her daughter that the Court of Versailles is very different from Austria and that Marie must remember to adapt herself to the French expectations. She also makes it clear that she is counting on her daughter to be of use politically when Austria needs it. The Empress reminds Marie that she is the future and that all eyes will soon be on her.
Marie leaves her mother's palace in an ornate carriage, looking very much like Cinderella, with a royal escort on white horses in tow. Inside the carriage, Marie passes the time with her friends, behaving like a modern teenager: she looks at a small portrait she has of Louis and her friends ask her what she thinks of him. "He has kind eyes" she giggles. The girls play cards inside the carriage, gaze out the window, gossip and laugh, share cornbread, and nap frequently as the carriage bobs along towards the French border.
When the carriage stops, Marie asks "Are we there yet?". Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan) advises her that they have reached the hand-over ceremony, where Marie will be handed off to the representatives of the French Court. Marie approaches an ornate tent erected in the woods, where she is met by the very stern and dour Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) who warns her that it is now time to say goodbye to everything Austrian and embrace a new French life. Marie kisses her Austrian friends goodbye, but cries when the Comtesse snatches away her dog, Mopps. The Comtesse dismisses her tears, saying, "You can have as many French dogs as you want". Marie is then led inside the tent, where she is quickly stripped naked, her Austrian clothes replaced with French fashions. "It is tradition for the bride to retain nothing of a foreign court", the Comtesse told Marie, who as of that moment has become the new Dauphine (engaged as she is to the Dauphin of France, who is like the Prince of Wales in Britain, and heir to the throne).
Louis August is the grandson of King Louis XV; since Louis' parents died when he was a child, Louis is next in line to the throne. Since a marriage has been arranged between Marie and Louis, Marie will one day become Queen of France, so everyone treats her with that respect from the first moment they meet her (this can get ridiculous).
The Austrian carriages head home, while Marie proceeds with a new French entourage for a rendezvous with Louis August and his grandfather, King Louis XIV (Rip Torn). The Dauphin, his brother the Comte De Provence (Sebastian Armesto), and other men play around in the woods waiting for Marie to arrive. They fence, look for rabbits in the grass, and wonder what Marie will look like, hoping she is good looking. Louis is nebbish and awkward, unlike some of the more dashing men around him. Also waiting for Marie are Aunt Sophie (Shirley Henderson) and Aunt Victoire (Molly Shannon), two of the biggest gossips at Versailles, who already talk about Marie before she has even arrived, and before they have ever met her. Aunt Victoire tells everyone they had better get used to apple strudel, with this new Austrian in court.
As Marie's carriage arrives, King Louis gives his grandson advice about appreciating a woman's bussom, noting that Marie was selected for her excellent beauty. The Dauphin lowers his head and is shy and embarrassed - he is nothing like his womanizing, loud, and somewhat gauche grandfather (who could be described as a dirty old man). When Marie leaves the carriage, the first person to greet her is the French foreign minister, who is the one who arranged the marriage. Marie thanks him for being the one responsible for her happiness, and the ambassador thanks her for bringing happiness to France. King Louis welcomes Marie to her new home, sneaking a peak at her bussom. Marie greets him as "grandfather King" before being introduced to her fiance. She awkwardly kisses him on the cheek. The Dauphin clearly is uncomfortable around women and much prefers keeping to himself. The gossipy aunts talk to each other, remarking how much of a child Marie is. They look ready to eat her alive.
The royal carriages leave the woods and head to Versailles. Upon their arrival at the palace, the whole court has turned out to welcome Marie, including many little children holding bouquets of blue and white flowers for her. Marie makes her way into the palace and is given a tour of her new apartment there -- it is very opulent, with a bed positioned behind a viewing rail so minor royals can fight for the privilege of holding Marie's underwear or bringing water for her to wash her hands. The more gold and glamour Marie sees, the more she is enchanted with Versailles. Just when she thinks it's all too much and is totally over the top, another secret panel will open in a wall to reveal an even more opulent room. She's like a kid in a candy store.
All eyes are on Marie as she acclimates to Versailles. At a meal with Louis, Marie is seated very formally next to her fiance, with an unbelievable spread of food in front of them. Marie asks Louis if he is fond of making keys, as she has heard. Louis simply answers, "Yes". "So, you enjoy making keys then?", to which Louis simply says, "Obviously". He is an awkward young man who eats his food in a dramatic and theatrical way -- and he is very cold to Marie, because he is such an introvert. Marie genuinely makes an effort to get to know him and keep conversation going, but Louis is a very odd bird to deal with.
The wedding of Marie Antoinette and Louis August is held in Versailles, with an elaborate ceremony and ball afterwards. King Louis XV makes a toast at the ball, hoping for many children and an heir to secure the Bourbon throne.
That night, everyone at court, including the bishop and priests, follow Louis and Marie to their bedroom, where everyone watches them undress and get into bed. The priests say a prayer in Latin and King Louis makes a short speech, wishing them both good luck and good work. It's incredibly awkward, because there are a hundred people in the room waiting for the young couple to consummate their marriage. Louis is too tired, and too scare of sex it seems, to do anything. The two just go to sleep.
Somehow, Louis sneaks away in the morning before Marie wakes up -- so she is startled awake by the Comptess and all her many ladies in waiting. Marie has never experienced anything like this, as there are two dozen royal women assembled to help her get dressed. The Comptess explains this is a great honor, to assist the Dauphine with her morning routine. As such, the Dauphine is not allowed to reach for anything, as that would be a snub of someone who is entitled to take on that honor. Marie is stripped naked by a pair of royals and is awaiting her morning clothes when a problem of protocol arises -- since it is an honor to place the Dauphine's underwear on her, that honor must go to the highest ranking person in the room -- but, that person keeps changing as new people arrive and take their time presenting Marie with her underwear. Marie is shivering from the cold and has to awkwardly cover herself up with her hands. Finally, Marie's new sister in law, a royal princess of the blood, is established as the highest ranking person there and she covers Marie with her undergarment. Marie says, "This is ridiculous". The Comptess corrects her, "No, madame, this is Versailles".
King Louis eats breakfast with his mistress, the Comptess du Barry (Asia Argento), who is a former prostitute despised by the royal court. The King is amused by her, though, and so he bought her a title so that she could be with him at court. The Comptess is a vulgar, loud, and abrasive person. The King discusses his grandson with her, and the fact that the servants reported nothing happened on his wedding night. The King and du Barry laugh at this -- because that apple sure has fallen far from the tree (King Louis is an insatiable lover and du Barry flaunts this).
Marie, finally dressed, attends mass with the Princess Lamballe (Mary Nighy) and becomes friends with her. The two share a laugh as an elder royal, in heavy white cake makeup, falls asleep during the mass. The Comptess is not amused and gives Marie a stern look. It is very evident that the royal court at Versailles wants to tame Marie from the beginning, but Marie seems to just want to be a good natured and fun loving teenager (for her time).
Marie really doesn't know what to do with herself in Versailles, since everything is really done for her. All she really has to do with her time is shop and eat pastries. She doesn't leave the palace, so designers bring clothes to her to try on. She and the Princess Lamballe try on dozens of shoes and debate wether they should order certain large feathers in pink or in white. Louis spends his time riding through the forest on a large white horse chasing dogs (it appears he is hunting, but no one carries a weapon, so it's not clear what he could be hunting. Perhaps foxes). Marie decides to take him a nice picnic lunch and arranges this for Louis under a large tree, where she helps serve the assembled guests.
After this, Ambassador Mercy takes Marie to task, telling her that it was inappropriate for the Dauphine to be seen handing meat to people outside. Marie says she is just trying to be a good wife. The Ambassador also advises her that the Empress of Austria has written and warns against Marie riding horses because they cause miscarriage. Marie sarcastically reminds the Ambassador that everyone knows there is no danger of miscarriage (since Louis has not consummated the marriage, and will not consummate it for 7 years, during which time everyone blames Marie for Louis' sexual dysfunction). The Ambassador reminds Marie that her marriage is on shaky ground unless consummated and that she is in danger until she produces a male heir -- only then will her position be secure at Versailles and in France (little did he know that even this wouldn't save her).
Marie tries to inspire her husband sexually, but he always has some excuse. He's either tired, or cold, or both. Awkwardly, he will sometimes try to kiss her, but usually just rolls over and says goodnight.
Once, while Louis was getting ready to leave for one of his hunts (in which no weapons are taken to actually hunt anything), Marie pleads with her husband to have sex with her when he gets back: she tells him that she will be humiliated if her sister in law becomes pregnant before she does. Louis promises to "do the deed" when he returns, then hops on his horse and waves childishly as he rides off for the hunt. Marie looks lost and then wanders through the palace after he is gone.
Madame du Barry feels slighted by Marie and everyone else at court. During a dinner scene, Aunt Victoire and Aunt Sophie gossip about du Barry while she is at the table. Marie does not know who she is, so someone explains that du Barry is a person who gives the King pleasure, which Marie rightly understands as a prostitute. Du Barry belches loudly at the table, causing everyone to gasp and gossip more enthusiastically about her. A servant accidentally brushes against du Barry and she asks the King to have the man flogged. She tells the King that no one treats her with respect, and she turns her eyes at Marie. Du Barry makes it her personal mission to force Marie to be nice to her. Marie is repulsed by du Barry, but is reminded several times that she is in no position to further anger the King, since no one is pleased that Marie is not pregnant yet.
The Empress of Austria writes to her daughter frequently, mainly for the purpose of telling Marie what a terrible wife she is. The Empress declares it the wife's responsibility to inspire her husband sexually and says that there is no reason a woman with as many charms as Marie should not be pregnant yet. Marie has no idea what to do, and is criticized on all fronts. The only escape she has is shopping, pastries, champagne, and gambling.
In her apartment, Marie now has a half dozen dogs and several ladies in waiting who help her pick out beautiful things to wear. Marie keeps asking about her little dog Mopps, that she had to leave behind when she first got to France. She has been trying to get this dog back for some time. Ambassador Mercy says he is still working on that. In the meantime, he asks Marie if she has had time to review the summary of documents that he prepared for her. Marie asks him why he can't just tell her about it, since she never got around to reading it. She seems like any teenager, and not someone who is in line to be Queen and reign over a country.
Marie's hair stylist is an outlandish man named Leonard (James Lance). He keeps pushing Marie to go overboard and become more and more flamboyant (considering the way Leonard dresses, this is no surprise). Marie asks him at one point, when he has put small birds into her giant wig, if it's all too much. Leonard, of course, says, "Oh no!". Nothing is ever too much at Versailles.
Some time passes, with nothing much changing for Marie: she gambles, she shops, she drinks, she eats, her husband ignores her. Finally, while Louis and Marie are eating one of their ridiculously extravagant meals, the Comptess runs in and tells them that their presence is requested at the birth of the new Compte du Provence, their nephew (born to Louis' brother, the Compte du Provence). So Marie's sister in law did become pregnant before she did. This complicates things for Marie immensely. She witnesses the birth and then adjourns to her own private chamber, where she cries in private, collapsing on the floor. She knows that things will only get worse for her now. The pressure will keep building for her to provide an heir to the throne.
Marie loves music, and there is an opera house in Versailles. Her spirits seem really up at a performance, which she enjoys immensely, but no one claps when it is over (it is against royal protocol to have noise at a royal performance). The Queen claps anyway and encourages everyone else to do the same -- they join in as well and are all smiles. The Queen revels in this and everyone assembled seems to genuinely like her in that moment.
Madame du Barry continues to make trouble for Marie, complaining to Louis XV that Marie snubs her. Ambassador Mercy warns Marie that she is on very shaky ground and must address du Barry, lest she insult the King. Marie agrees, and in a very simple scene she walks up to du Barry and says, "There are a lot of people at Versailles today". Du Barry is all smiles and agrees with the Dauphine, that there are indeed a lot of people at Versailles that day. As she walks away, Marie tells Louis that those were the last words she will ever say to du Barry.
At another opera performance, Marie meets a vivacious young royal, the Duchess de Polignac (Rose Byrne), who was escorted by a Russian count she brought from St. Petersburg. Marie creates a small circle of girlfriends with Polignac and Lambelle and a few other of her ladies in waiting -- and they become inseparable as Marie turns more and more to gambling and drinking and late night parties to occupy her time and take her mind off her mother constantly criticizing her.
There is a masked ball in Paris one night and Marie somehow convinces Louis to go with her. Since they will be wearing masks, they can get away with doing this, as no one will know who they really are (if they were traveling as themselves, there would be all sorts of protocol to keep them from ever attending a ball like this). Marie flirts with a young Swedish count at the ball, Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan). Fersen has no idea who Marie is at this time, but as she walks away someone whispers that it was the Dauphine. Louis cuts the night short, at 330 in the morning, and insists they head back to Versailles. Marie had a wonderful time that night.
When they got back to Versailles, they learn that King Louis is gravely ill with typhoid fever. King Louis is dying in his bed and dictates a last letter to du Barry, thanking her for her "friendship" that will always be dear to him. Du Barry is escorted out of the palace, with all her ridiculous outfits and her pet monkeys. Everyone knows the king is dying, so they are clearing out his mistress so that he can receive the last rights of a Catholic (which he cannot be given unless he no longer has a mistress). After King Louis dies, the court races to Louis and Marie and proclaims Louis XVI the King of France. Louis stands with Marie, then kneels and faces Heaven as he says, "We are too young to reign".
The coronation is lavish, with Marie looking her most beautiful sitting on a golden throne watching her husband be crowned 'with a crown of glory'. There is a huge fireworks display with miniature fighting ships battling in a pool at Versailles. Marie wears one of her most opulent hair pieces to this party, with a miniature ship sailing on big waves of wigged hair.
Marie's 18th birthday party happens at this time as well, which is another extravagant night of gambling for her. Louis warns her not to gamble away their entire fortune. Marie stays up late with her friends and watches the sun rise before stumbling back to her apartment to pass out amidst piles of half eaten food and spilled champagne. She has a fantastic hangover in the morning.
Louis is advised to support and fund he American Revolution as a way of sticking things to England, the traditional rival of France. Louis is not comfortable helping the Americans reject their sovereign, but Louis' advisors tell him this foreign war will be a great way of showing all of Europe how strong France is. Louis worries about how much this will cost the treasury, but his advisors tell him that a small increase in taxes will pay for this war. No one gives any thought to how unpopular this decision will be for the French people or how much it will really cost France.
Marie is visited by her brother Joseph, who is now Emperor of Austria (Marie's mother is a dowager Empress now). When Marie sees her brother, she asks him if he is there to kidnap her and take her back to Austria. Joseph says he cannot kidnap the Queen of France. How strange it is for two siblings to be the rulers of two different countries -- but they act like brother and sister and not heads of state. Marie offers Joseph a jasmine flower display tea sent to her by the Emperor of China. The two of them are fascinated by this exotic and unusual tea -- like little kids almost. Joseph says he is there, at their mother's urging, to warn her about her spending, her gambling, her choice in friends (no one apparently likes Polignac, since she is perceived as a bad influence), and her sexual problems with Louis. Joseph says he will have a man to man talk with Louis about marital relations - and he does just that, while Louis is showing him the elephant kept at Versailles. Joseph tells Louis that there is a female elephant at the menagerie in Vienna. Louis jokes that maybe they should arrange a marriage between the Austrian and French elephants. Joseph then takes the opportunity to talk to Louis about sex, in terms of the locks and keys he is obsessed with. Joseph then writes his mother and tells her that she can stop worrying, since he has sorted Louis out: the King and Queen of France are sexual blunderers, but he thinks his advice will help "the Great Work" happen.
Louis enjoys reading books on locks while in bed -- fascinated that the first locks were made of wood 3000 years ago in Egypt. Marie is at the point where she has just about given up on Louis. Slowly, he remembers Joseph's advice and attempts intercourse with his wife (of seven years at this point). It takes a few more nights, but finally Louis succeeds -- Marie is surprised by the sensation, since this is the first time she has ever had sex. The next day, she lays in the flowers and grass and seems very relieved.
Nine months later, a child is born, but it is not a male heir. The court is very disappointed in Marie. Marie loves her daughter and says, "Dear Marie Therese, you are not what was desired but you are no less dear to me". She fawns over her baby daughter, but the Comptess will not allow the Queen to nurse her own child, believing the Queen is too weak -- also, they want the Queen to get pregnant again as soon as possible so that they can try once more for a male heir. The Queen is saddened by everyone's reaction to her giving birth to a girl. People in the corridors whisper nasty things to her, like "Give us an heir".
Louis is happy with his wife, though, and gives her the Petit Triannon palace as her own personal retreat. This palace, on the grounds of Versailles, was once the home of Madame du Barry. Marie begins to spend more and more time at the Triannon, where she listens to music, smells flowers, and wanders around in a dreamy fog. Louis comes to pick her up at this retreat one day so Marie can return to Versailles proper and get ready for a ball they planned to honor the soldiers Louis sent to America.
In the receiving line for these honored soldiers, Louis compliments various generals for doing things like capturing Grenada. Marie notices Count Fersen and compliments his bravery and gallantry. The American War of Independence cost France a fortune, but his advisors kept assuring Louis that France could afford it. In reality, all the money being funneled into this war was affecting the people of France, who were growing more and more hungry.
Ambassador Mercy tried to convince Marie to cut back on her spending, since the people were suffering shortages. Marie did not really understand this concept, so she told the gardener to only order small trees instead of large ones and told Mercy that she would just ask Louis for more money to give to her young mother's charities that month. Marie and Louis were totally cut off from reality, and no one from the lower classes was ever seen at Versailles. They lived totally in a gilded bubble.
Marie took Fersen as a lover and the two of them had some very hot and steamy times in the Triannon palace. Marie, Lambelle, Polignac, and other ladies in waiting also enjoyed playing peasant in a small farm Marie had built at the Triannon. Marie called this her little village, where she kept chickens, lambs, and cows. The women wore simple clothes on this farm, ate fresh strawberries with fresh cream, and had a wonderful time in what Marie called "her Heaven". They also really enjoyed playing hide and go seek late into the night in the palace - and playing charades and guessing games at late night bonfire picnics outside. They had a grand, grand time.
Marie gave birth to a son -- the Dauphin -- and everyone in the royal court rejoiced. Marie also had a miscarriage after that, which saddened her, before having one more son (for a total of three living children). Marie was shown to be a good mother who loved her children very much. The happiest she seemed in the film were the times she spent with her daughter in the gardens.
But, the public had turned against the Queen. Marie and her friends read newspaper stories that were outrageous -- the paper's claimed Marie said, "Let them eat cake" when told about the bread shortages -- something she NEVER actually said. The papers also claimed Marie had lesbian orgies with her friends - the Princess Lambelle read that aloud and said, "And apparently I was sucking on your toes". Marie thought all of this was ridiculous, but refused to address it. Her friends asked if there wasn't anything she could do about it, but Marie just thought it was ridiculous stories that would blow over.
Another night at the Versailles opera showed how much the tide had turned against her, though: Marie tried to clap at the end of the performance again, but this time everyone just sat there and stared at her. No one clapped along. It was obvious how much hate was in that silence. People began writing graffiti on the Queen's portraits, calling her "The Queen of Debt". A lot of the public's frustration was directed at her -- and it hurt Marie terribly. She wandered through Versailles in a haze, not realizing how much people hated her, or why they hated her that much.
One day, during a picnic the King and Queen were having at Versailles, a minister ran up and announced that the Bastille Fortress had been stormed and a mob was on its way to Versailles from Paris. Immediately, the military wanted to evacuate the King and Queen to the Fortress of Metz, but Louis said he would not become a fugitive king. The Queen said her place, and the place of her children, was with the King (this proved a bad move for them all). The King did agree that all of Marie's friends should be evacuated, as the public particularly hated Polignac. That night, carriages spirited all of Marie's friends away for the Swiss border.
Later that night, the mob arrived at Versailles and wanted to kill Marie. They had torches and gardening sickles, pitchforks and sharp spikes. They began throwing things at the windows of the palace to smash them. Marie's maids were terrified, but the Queen said everyone should stay calm and that it would all be fine. She opened a secret passage and headed downstairs to find her children and the King. As a family, they stood together as the crowd yelled for the Queen. They were shouting 'Death to the Queen" over and over again. Marie calmly went out to the balcony and stood there for everyone to see her. Then, she bowed to the crowd -- and the crowd went silent for a minute. There were thousands of people holding torches in the courtyard of Versailles -- but Marie held herself up and did not seem afraid.
Louis and Marie had their last meal in the darkness of the palace. Only a few servants remained; none of the royal interlopers and hangers-on were there. As the King and Queen ate, the crowds kept shouting and screaming outside.
In the morning, Marie and Louis loaded their children into a carriage -- the mob forced them to leave Versailles and were taking them to Paris (where they would be installed at the Louvre Palace at first...this is some time before their execution). Louis does not seem to realize how serious this all is. He still thinks they will come back to Versailles some day. Marie know better though. She looks mournfully out the window as the sun rises. Louis asks, "Are you admiring your lime trees?". Marie says, "No, I am saying goodbye".
The film ends with that last shot of Marie, lit by the sunrise, on the last day she will ever see Versailles.
No explanation is given for what happens next historically, or for how the rest of the revolution plays out. So, the film really ends up being just about Marie's time at Versailles - and not a complete picture of her life or the revolution.
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