Marie Antoinette, Season 1 (2022)


Reviewer’s Note: I watched this on PBS Passport, which mutes most of the foul language and blurs out nudity, so there may be more content in the unedited physical disc release.


Marie Antoinette was a mere child when she went to France to seal an alliance, and this series depicts the first decade of her experiences. It’s a lavish production, beautifully cast, and meticulously costumed, but it has so much sexual content in it, it’s hard to recommend. Austria is in desperate need of a French alliance, so they prepare the young Marie (Emilla Schule) for French culture with lessons in composure and deportment. Marie begs her mother not to send her abroad, but her iron-stomached empress mother insists she travel across the border—where her precious pet pug is removed from her arms and sent home.


Handed over to a stern “keeper of her household,” Marie looks for alliances in the faces around her—and finds them in the charming but dangerous King Louis (James Purefoy) and his mistress, Madame Du Barry (Gaia Weiss). But the innocent young Marie knows nothing of court mechanisms, nor that Madame Du Barry is a glorified “prostitute.” Nor does she know anything about being a queen-in-waiting, or about the demands of the nuptial bed—and her husband, Louis (Louis Cunningham), has no interest in that, in favor of his hunting trips and his love of horses, blacksmithing, and birds. No matter what she tries, she cannot interest him in consummating the marriage, which causes a fuss at court. Before long, others, including Louis’ younger brother, are conspiring against Marie, and after she learns of Du Barry’s checkered past and rejects her friendship, the king’s mistress makes it her personal mission to get Marie sent back in shame to her Austrian mother. Can Marie save her marriage when it continues to go awry? Will she choose the right alliances moving forward? And whom in a court full of deceit, naughty rumors, and power-grubbing nobles, can she truly trust?


I feel torn about this miniseries, because on the one hand, it’s absolutely sumptuous. The casting is spot on and the scripts are good. The story makes you truly feel for Marie and experience all of her fears, frustrations, and problems alongside of her—her fear as it seems like she might get sent home, her annoyance with a husband who refuses to even speak to her (his brother calls him a “mute”), and we sympathize with her later, as she falls in love with someone else. But while Louis is frustrating for the first five episodes, in the last three, he becomes extremely likable. Their gradual courtship is one of the best things about the season, as he learns to trust her, and she comes to see the merit in his quiet, principled leadership. Moments when they are alone without any pressures placed upon them are few and far between, but often the sweetest and most romantic, such as when he gifts her beloved pug back to her just to make her happy, or she plays a game of hide and seek with him on the roof. More is said in their smiles and sweet looks than most dialogue could express. But there’s a great many bumps along the way, including Louis becoming so enraged with her after being taunted that he tries to rape her. The series uses it for shock value, and he doesn’t succeed, but it’s hard to come back from it, which renders it unnecessary. Nor does it suit his overall quiet, passive personality.


Louis truly comes into his own in the final two episodes, which deal with the American Revolution. It’s fascinating for once to see it through the lens of a foreign court, and to realize with a sinking feeling that his assistance in the war is eventually what lead to his downfall. But finally, we see him come into his kingship, demand respect from his conniving brother, and assert himself. And in part, that’s what makes the first season somewhat frustrating—it seems to take as long for him to step up as it did in real life. Many of the episodes revolve around his lack of consummating his marriage, which becomes as frustrating for the viewer as it proved to be for the court of France three hundred years ago. And there’s minor historical nitpicks as well—despite the incredible, detailed, lush, and gorgeous costumes and sets (including at the Palace of Versailles), there’s rarely any servants around to observe anything and Marie spends most of her time alone (not likely). The hairstyles are fantastic, but not always period-authentic (if anything, they are “tame” – Marie shows up with a small boat in her hair, unlike the outrageous style she actually wore then). The side characters are numerous, but most of them are under-developed, personality-wise.


And the series feels tawdry because of the excessive amount of attention it pays to sexual themes, conversations, encounters, and emphasis. Five episodes are preoccupied with the lack of consummation and two more revolve around sexual/pornographic “libel” spread around court aimed at Marie. While these things did happen, and were partly the thing that eventually destroyed her (accusations of affairs, incest, etc), it’s a bit tedious to talk about them constantly. And I’m equally tired of the f-word being used instead of intelligent period-authentic dialogue. And yet, I enjoyed it, even when it felt long. The really good moments, such as Marie and Louis connecting emotionally on the roof, Marie making her debut in Paris, the glimpses of her private chateau, her stubborn refusal to speak to the king’s mistress in public (and his frightening rebuke of her in his carriage), and especially, the visit of Benjamin Franklin to the French court, shine amid the tarnish of an almost constant preoccupation with sex. It’s not something I could watch with my mother (unlike Victoria), but it’s not something I will never watch again, either. If only because Louis and Marie are absolutely adorable as a couple, even if she strays and he’s passive and inert for most of the first season.


Sexual Content:

Almost every episode features a great deal of conversation around the unconsummated status of Marie and Louis’ marriage, until they finally “do it” in episode five. It ranges from questions about the wedding night, questions about her menstrual cycle, to stripping them naked before the court and putting them “to bed” together; when nothing happens for months, the king tries to instruct his grandson in the proper manner in a cringe-fest scene in which he plunges a knife into a “love apple” accompanied by sensual noises and conversation; lots of innuendo, conversations about the queen “spreading her legs,” mentions of sex; a brief shot of the king’s mistress being done from behind by someone else; the king hugs Marie from behind and it’s implied he has an erection (which makes her uncomfortable); two women cuddle in bed, one of them with romantic looks and caresses; rumors fly about the queen performing oral sex on her ladies; several times, women are seen in semi-sheer nightgowns that reveal their nipples; the king’s mistress fondles his privates (below screen) and speaks suggestively to him; Louis tries to consummate with Marie, so he climbs on top of her and thrusts until she feels pain and asks him to stop; characters flip through a book of sexual acts depicted in portrait form; dirty notes circulate around court and get read aloud; Louis becomes infuriated with Marie after an argument and tries to rape her (he climbs on top of her, forces her onto the bed, and unbuttons his pants, but she screams and pushes him away); her brother comes to court to ensure they consummate the marriage, and speaks suggestively to Louis, suggests he use a prostitute to teach him “how” and finally escorts him to a brothel, where he overhears the king and his whore moaning and rocking the bed; a mention of lesbianism (a woman fell in unrequited love with another woman); Louis and Marie consummate their marriage (we see his bare backside in the process); the next episode features several glimpses of a dirty/sexual illustration circulating around court implicating Marie in an affair; Marie is found with her legs up in the air after sex, to ensure she holds onto the “seed” as her husband buttons up his pants; a woman climbs into bed with two men, they talk and then start to kiss one another; Marie kisses her female friend on the lips; there’s a love scene in the final episode between Marie and Louis (brief clothed movement), after she kisses another man.
Lots of sexual slang and anatomical references; slut/whore several times, bitch three times, ass once, balls twice, a coarse name for a black man once, and the f-word ten times.
We see dead animals several times (Louis is introduced to Marie while holding a dead hare, which she finds disturbing; in another episode, she watches him stab a stag and it dies and bleeds out in a pond; they shoot at ducks and other birds. A man becomes angry with his wife and slams her into a bookcase and pulls her hair, after which she jabs him in the ribs and throws him to the floor and then kicks him repeatedly, holding her high heel to his throat until he apologizes. Several people are slapped in the face (a woman slaps a man, who slaps her across the face; another man slaps a different woman).

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