Sunday, October 29, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Ok, I admit it -- this isn't a movie review. Two weeks post movie-attendance, this is what I have to say about Marie Antoinette:

In "Freakoutonomics," in the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait writes:

"Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled."

This is serious, serious stuff and I recommend the entire article. Income inequality in this country has grown steadily in the past few years, and the rate of increase has skyrocketed recently. Chait points out that one of the ways we see this is in the economic dissatisfactions of the middle class: despite the fine performance of the economy on paper, those gains have gone to the most privileged in our country. Meanwhile, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class have gotten nowhere at all, and prices have done what prices do in a roaring economy -- they've gone up.

In connection with this I recommend: Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It's an interesting view of the woman and the time: the ferment in the streets of Paris is visible only on the margins, an occasional downbeat reference almost lost in the sybaritic consumption, opulence, and sheer silliness of Versailles. The opening scene says it all in shorthand: a servant tends to Marie's toes while she languorously drags a finger through the icing on a cake.

Marie knows that she is a woman whose primary function is as a symbol and a womb: she is there to cement a bit of realpolitik and to bear heirs for the Bourbons. In the meantime, she is free to enjoy herself within the rules of the Versailles court, which means that the only part of her that enjoys much freedom is her purse. Goodies insue, until the revolution comes and the party is over. The movie ends then, allowing the viewer to contemplate the situation without the distractions of the prison and the guillotine.

I've seen some interviews in which Coppola says that she was interested in the idea of the teen monarchs, able to do as they like. Maybe so, but the movie also stands for me as a warning to those of us who enjoy prosperity in days that are not prosperous for everyone.

Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." The movie and several other accounts portray her as a nice party girl who did the charitable things expected of her, and who shopped and consumed for fun. She loved her family, was a good mother, and was not much sillier than anyone else around her. A generation earlier, we might not remember her at all. We remember her and her luckless family because they didn't realize that privileges can be revoked until it was too late.

In a country where "
the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled," we cannot afford to be so blinkered. Wake up, America: get your fingers out of the cake -- smell the republic burning.

[OK, OK: Thumb's up.]


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