Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Five of My Favorite French Revolution Films

The French Revolution has been the subject of film since the dawn of motion pictures; naturally then, it should come as no surprise that there are countless films about the revolution and its players--nor should it surprise you that the revolution continues to fascinate filmmakers today!

I compiled 5 of my current favorite films set in the French Revolution, which I've shared below.

Note: The 5 films chosen for this list are available in English or with official English subtitles, hence the exclusion of certain famous titles, such as La Revolution Francaise (1989). If you're looking for more 'Marie Antoinette' films, check out my other list!

L'Anglaise et le Duc (2001)

Inspired by the embroidered memoirs of Grace Elliot, the Scottish mistress to the duc d'Orleans, who was caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution. Grace and Orleans' relationship is played against the backdrop of the Paris during the Terror, where political loyalties--including those of the royalist Grace--can become a life or death matter. 

Danton (1983)

A downfall of Danton, adapted from a play by director Andrzej Wajda, whose decision to draw parallels through then-contemporary Polish events and the conflict between Danton and Robespierre makes for an intense--if polarized--look at the ultimate fate of some of the revolution's major players. Gerard Depardieu gives a particularly stand-out performance as Danton.

 Les adieux à la reine (2012)

Les adieux à la reine, based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, has a micro-focus that sets it apart from the more typical revolution films that span years. The story follows Sidonie, a young reader to Marie Antoinette, as she navigates the tension, panic and confusion of the palace over a several day period--before, during and after the fall of Bastille. (I have more thoughts on the film, particularly how it differs from the novel, here.)

 Orphans of the Storm (1921)

 A melodramatic but undeniably entertaining silent film about two sisters, Louise and Henriette, who travel to 1780s Paris and find themselves prey to political turmoil, poverty, the attentions of a violent aristocrat, and a revolution that threatens to divide the sisters forever. The story is based on a play which had already been adapted into film two times before 1921!

La Marseillaise (1938)

A sweeping epic from Jean Renoir that threads together the many stories of the French Revolution--from arguments in the boudoir of the king and queen to political speeches that helped turn the tide of history to the lives of the people who took to the streets of Paris and Versailles during the early years of the revolution. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

8 Films for 18th-Century Devotees

There are countless films set in the 18th century--some of them even date as far back as the (very) late 19th century! The 18th century was a time of great social change and upheaval, of great personalities and dramatic lives; in short, it is a goldmine of storytelling for filmmakers.

It would be impossible to list every worthwhile film set in the 1700s, but I've compiled a short list of 8 films set in 18th century Europe that I find particularly exceptional. If you've noticed a lack of Marie Antoinette or French Revolution films on the list, don't worry: I have a desperate list for Marie Antoinette related films and am currently working on a list for films set during the Revolution.

 Barry Lyndon (1975)

Often described as one of Stanley Kubrick's finest films, Barry Lyndon (based on a novel by William Thackeray) tells the story of an Irish adventurer who finds himself in the midst of the British aristocracy after seducing a wealthy widow. The film's exquisite attention to production detail, which include specially designed cameras that allowed the production team to use mostly natural lighting and candle light, make it a true stand-out.

Belle (2013)

A fictionalized version of the real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer and Maria Belle, an enslaved woman. The film juxtaposes Belle's struggle to find her place in society with the infamous Zong "cargo" case. An exceptional performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw made Belle one of the best films of the year.

Dangerous Liasons (1988) 

This rich adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses is impossible to resist: gorgeous costumes, stunning interiors, and just the right amount of luscious scandal mark it as one of the best adaptations of the novel, and one of the best 18th century period films currently out there. Glenn Close's performance is especially notable--and if you're a fan of Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette,' take note of the parallels between Liasons' infamous opera scene and Coppola's own film. 
The Duchess (2008) 

The Duchess of Devonshire was the "it" girl of British society in her day, and while The Duchess has some occasional pacing issues, it is one of the better biographical period films in recent memory. Kiera Knightley gives a great performance as the titular Duchess who, despite the limitations of life for women in Georgian England, strives to make her own mark on society.

 Casanova (2005) 

Heath Ledger stars as the titular Casanova in this fun, adventurous and romantic take on the life of Casanova. A fun adventurous film, lovely costumes, a heartfelt storyline and some surprising performances in supporting roles (Jeremy Irons, anyone?) are what make Casanova a memorable and worthwhile watch.

Ridicule (1996) 

In Ridicule, a poor French aristocrat must navigate the treacherous, difficult and scandalous world of Versailles in order to petition the King for a special project. Ridicule is a bit on the slower side, but the biting, down-to-Earth take on social corruption at the court of Versailles is a refreshing one.

The Madness of King George (1994) 

A dramatization of the mental afflictions experienced by George III, whose declining mental state and the attempted treatment by his physicians was fed upon by his political enemies. Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren give particularly powerful performances that manage to be charming, witty, regal and even somber. The film covers a unique period in history and should not be missed!

Amadeus (1984)  

Amadeus is a fun, somewhat off the wall and definitely entertaining look at the rise of Amadeus Mozart and the dramatized rivalry between Antonio Salieri, played with relish in the film by F. Murray Abraham. From the rich soundtrack to the outlandish costumes to the antics of the titular Amadeus, the film has something for everyone. Above all, this straight-from-the-80s take on the life of Amadeus will rock your world!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Capet, éveille-toi! by Victor Hugo

[credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie]

Capet, éveille-toi! by Victor Hugo

[Translation from Louis XVII: A Bibliography.]
Heaven's golden gates were opened wide one day,
And through them shot one glittering, dazzling ray
From the veiled Glory, through the shining bars,
Whilst the glad armies of the ransomed dead
Welcomed a spirit by child-angels led
Beneath the dome of stars.

From griefs untold that boy-soul took its flight,
Sorrow had dimmed his eyes and quenched their light;
Round his pale features floats his golden hair;
Whilst virgin souls with songs of welcome stand
With martyr palms to fill his childish hand,
And crown him with that crown the Innocents should wear.

Hark! Hear th' angelic hosts their song begin;
New angel! Heaven is open — enter in,
Come to thy rest; thine earthly griefs are o'er.
God orders all who chant in praise of Him,
Prophets, archangels, seraphim,
To hail thee as a King and Martyr evermore!

When did I reign? the gentle spirit cries.
I am a captive, not a crowned king.
Last night in a sad tower I closed my eyes.
When did I reign? O Lord, explain this thing.
My father's death still fills my heart with fear.
A cup of gall to me, his son, was given. I am an orphan. Is my mother here?
I always see her in my dreams of heaven.

The angels answered: God the Wise and Good,
Dear boy, hath called thee from the evil world, A world that tramples on the Blessed Rood,
Where regicides with ruthless hands have hurled Kings from their thrones,
And from their very graves have tossed their mouldering bones. What! is my long, sad, weary waiting o'er?

The child exclaimed. Has all been suffered, then? Is it quite true that from this dream no more
I shall be rudely waked by cruel men? Ah! in my prison every day I prayed,
How long, O God, before some help will come? Oh, can this be a dream? I feel afraid —
Can I have died, and be at last at home?

You know not half my griefs that long sad while;
Each day life seemed more terrible to bear;
I wept, but had no mother's pitying smile,
No dear caress to soften my despair.
It seemed as if some punishment were sent
Through me some unknown sin to expiate.
I was so young — ere knowing what sin meant
Could I have earned my fate?

Vaguely, far off, my memory half recalls
Bright, happy days before these days of fear; Asleep a glorious murmur sometimes falls
Of cheers and plaudits on my childish ear. Then I remember all this passed away;
Mysteriously its brightness ceased to be; A lonely, friendless boy I helpless lay,
And all men hated me.

My young life in a living tomb they threw;
My eyes no more beheld the sun's bright beams; But now I see you angels, brothers, who
So often came to watch me in my dreams. Men crushed my life in those hard hands of theirs.
But they had wrongs. O Lord, do not condemn! Be not as deaf as they were to my prayers!
I want to pray for them.

The angels chanted: Heaven's holiest place
Welcomes thee in. We'll crown thee with a star; Blue wings of cherubim thy form shall grace,
On which to float afar.
Come with us. Thou shalt comfort babes who weep
In unwatched cradles in the world below,
Or bear fresh light on wings of glorious sweep
To suns that burn too low.

The angels paused. The child's eyes filled with tears.
On heaven an awful silence seemed to fall.
The Father spake, and echoing through the spheres
His voice was heard by all.

My love, dear king, preserved thee from the fate
Of earth-crowned kings whose griefs thou hast not known.
Rejoice, and join the angels' happy hymns.
Thou hast not known the slavery of the great;
Thy brow was never bruised beneath a crown,
Though chains were on thy limbs.
What though life's burden crushed thy tender frame,
Child of bright hopes, heir of a royal name!
Better to be
Child of that blessed One who suffered scorn,
Heir of that King who wore a crown of thorn,
Hated and mocked — like thee.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Selections from the 18th century dress collection of Talbot Hughes


Talbot Hughes was a wealthy artist who, over the course of two decades, amassed an extensive collection of English fashions and fashion accessories, all dating from the 16th through the 19th century. In 1913, Hughes sold his vast collection to the famous Harrods Department Store in London. Harrods, in turn, gifted the collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1913.

Some of the dresses and suits donated to the V&A were collected in a book volume titled Old English Costumes. I found some digitized scans of the 18th century pieces featured in the book on, a selection of which I've posted below. What I most appreciate about these scans is how the fashions are being displayed--they are brought to life through poses and backdrops that give them more immediacy than a standard museum display.

All images are from

Some of the collection of Talbot Hughes, including a gorgeous sack back gown, can be found at the V&A Digital Collection website.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Madame Elisabeth Prayer Cards

Although she is often overlooked in popular culture, Madame Elisabeth played an integral role in the lives of Louis XVI and his family--particularly during those final years in captivity. Her religious devotion was a source of strength not just for herself, but for her brother, her sister-in-law, and their children. Madame Royale wrote that once she was old enough to appreciate such things, she saw nothing in her aunt but "religion, love of God, horror of sin, gentleness, piety, modesty, and a great attachment to her family, for whom she sacrificed her life[.]"

I recently received several religious items related to the unfortunate princess, which I'd like to share now.

Below is a scan of a beautiful prayer card featuring one of the most well known prayers of Madame Elisabeth, presented in an elegant font and surrounded by religious and royal imagery.

credit: my scan/collection

The second item is a small booklet, released sometime in the 1920s, featuring a small portrait on the front, a short biography of the princess along with a few religious quotes from her letters on the inside (not pictured); and the same prayer quoted above on the back.

credit: my scan/collection

There's a particularly interesting note at the bottom of the page: "People who obtain graces of God through the intercession of Madame Elisabeth are requested to provisionally notify the Carmel de Pie IX of Meaux."

The Carmelites of Meaux were the first known association to campaign for the beatification of Madame Elisabeth. Princess Henriette of Belgium was the most famous patron in their cause. There have actually been several movements to petition the Church to beatify Elisabeth since the 1920s, including a modern Association of Madame Elisabeth founded in 2008; so far, none of these efforts have been successful.

 credit: my scan/collection

The final item I received is nearly identical to the earlier booklet, except it is from the late 1930s or early 1940s and is much more simple. The interior pages (not pictured) contains a short biography and the back, like the earlier release, has a transcription of Elisabeth's prayer.

And finally, an English translation of the prayer featured on all three of these publications:
I do not know what will happen to me today, o my God. All I know is that nothing will happen to me but what You have foreseen from Eternity. That is sufficient, o my God, to keep me in peace. I adore Your infinite designs. I submit to them with all of my heart. I desire them all: I accept them all. I make the sacrifice to You of everything. I unite this sacrifice to that of your dear Son my Saviour, begging You by His Sacred Heart and by His infinite merits for the patience in my troubles and the perfect submission which is due to You in all that You wish and permit.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Marie Antoinette's Wedding Dress

The wedding dress worn by the 14-year old Marie Antoinette for the lavish ceremony held in the Royal Chapel of Versailles must have been a spectacle to behold. The court of France was the epicenter of fashionable dress in Europe, where trends were made and unmade, and where court dress was well-known for being the most luxurious of all.

The dress worn by Marie Antoinette was described as being made with silver cloth and decorated with countless numbers of diamonds; Marie Antoinette herself was described as "much jeweled" on her wedding day. Although it must have been one of the most extravagant wedding gowns in its day, the expensive and well-planned wedding dress worn by Marie Antoinette no longer exists. However, we can get an idea of what it may have looked like through contemporary wedding dresses and several contemporary engravings.

 image: the wedding dress of Hedwig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein Gottorp

The wedding dress of Hedwig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein Gottorp is among the finest surviving examples of a wedding dress worn by someone in the very upper crust of European society. Hedwig married the future Charles XIII of Sweden in June of 1774, just four years after the wedding of Marie Antoinette; Hediwg's dress, made with expensive silver cloth and tissue, was ordered from Paris and would have been the height of court-approved royal wedding apparel at the time. The dress originally had matching sleeves made from silver tissue and lace, but these were later removed.

 image: Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste in their wedding outfits

This particular contemporary engraving of Marie Antoinette and her new husband Louis Auguste in their wedding ensembles matches the descriptions of their wedding day dress quite well. No expense would have been spared for either outfit--the wedding of the heirs to the throne of France was no "simple" wedding! Marie Antoinette's dress was made from beautiful silver cloth, bedecked in diamonds and other jewels that sparkled as she passed the throngs of spectators gathered to witness the important ceremony; while Louis' ensemble, though it was described as not fitting the groom--who blushed and trembled--exceptionally well, would have been made from brilliant gold cloth.

image: The wedding ensembles from Marie Antoinette (2006)

 Marie Antoinette's wedding dress has been featured in multiple films about the queen. The dress worn in the 2006 Sofia Coppola film was designed by Milena Canonero. The dress is made from a beautiful silver cloth with a creamy tint and decorated with various ribbons and embellishments, although Marie Antoinette is not "much jeweled" as she was described on her real wedding day. Many of the dresses featured in the film do not have as many ornamental embellishments as court dress at the time, which may have been a way of giving the costumes more appeal to modern viewers.

 image: Marie Antoinette's wedding dress in Marie Antoinette: La veritable histoire (2006)

This dress was worn by Karine Vanasse in the docudrama Marie Antoinette: La veritable histoire. The gown was actually used twice in the film: first in the wedding scene and again during a scene where Marie Antoinette is reading a letter from her mother. The dress is relatively simple in comparison to the type of dress Marie Antoinette may have worn; the simple design may have been intentional so that the filmmakers could re-use it in another scene without requiring the creation of an entirely new ensemble. The costume designers for the film are listed as Pierre Bechir, Nicoletta Massone, Sylvie de Segonzac.

 image: the wedding ensembles in Marie Antoinette (1938)

The wedding won designed by Gilbert Adrian for Marie Antoinette (1938) is easily among the most sumptuous and detailed gown in the film--and perhaps one of of the most sumptuous gowns in film history! The gown, which weighed an amazing 108 lbs, was made with 500 yards of pristine white satin; it was hand-embroideredwith thousands of seed pearls, ribbons and other delicate (and expensive!) embellishments. With the amount of work and money it must have taken to create this dress, it's no wonder the MGM studio heads were breathing down Adrian's neck about the costume budget!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Deepest Expectations: An Allegory of the Death of Louis XV

Louis XV had once been called the "Most Beloved," but by the time of his death in 1774, he had squandered the good will of the people with years of unpopular decisions, increasing isolation from anyone outside his court circle, and visible, expensive mistresses who made convenient scapegoats for the king's decisions. His death ushered in a wave of hopes, pressure and expectations from the French people for their new king, the young Louis-Auguste, now Louis XVI, and his young queen.

 image: Allegory of the Death of Louis XV
credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie

Perhaps nothing illustrations the immediacy of these expectations than this engraving published in 1774 as 'An Allegory of the Death of Louis XV.' Rather than resembling the standard allegory of the death of royalty--which usually depict them being welcomed into heaven by angels, cherubs and other heavenly creatures--Louis XV is shown in barefoot, in simple clothing with a traveler's walking stick; he is being shown portraits of his living family, the hope for France. It is his remaining family, and not Louis XV himself, who are being draped with flower garlands and celebrated.

To illustrate the point even further, this engraving was accompanied by the following poem, which refers to Louis XV as 'the subject of regret.'
What an important spectacle this tableau presents you!
An august family still flourishing
Contemplate here these portraits
See--there, gathered under the eyes of France
Along with the subject of regret
Those of its deepest expectation
Marie Antoinette remarked on these expectations in a letter to her mother several months after the death of her 'grandpapa king': "... I worry a little about this French enthusiasm when it comes to the future. ... opinion is divided, and it will be impossible to please everyone in a country where people are so impatient that they want everything done immediately."

Louis XV left his grandson a kingdom that was in near ruins from deficit and deeply ingrained corruption. Louis XVI, woefully unprepared to rule and forced to navigate the corrupted court that detested his attempts at reform, was faced with the impossible task of fixing France.