Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution

On a snowy night in late November in 1973, Paris was burning, as first-time filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper shows in her rough-hewn, repetitive, yet still lively documentary on the “Battle of Versailles,” in which five top French couturiers faced off against an equal number of American ready-to-wear designers at the royal château. Team USA consisted of Halston, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Stephen Burrows, one of the many veterans of the event Draper interviews. Behind mirrored sunglasses, Burrows speaks nonchalantly about the chilly reception the Yanks got; more animated recollections issue forth from the models, several of them African-American, who recall the absence of toilet paper, heat, and food. Despite these privations, the New World destroyed the ancien régime. A tacky, creaky, and bloated variety show, the French presentation included pumpkin coaches, waltzes, and a mechanical rhino pulling a Gypsy cart with 10 Ungaro models. The U.S. segment, in the words of model Alva Chinn, favored simplicity: “Beautiful clothes on good-looking people just moving across the stage” to the sounds of Barry White and Al Green. “It was the presence of these African-American models that really animated the stage,” notes Harold Koda of the Met’s Costume Institute—a sentiment that fashion historian Barbara Summers expresses more memorably: The crowd was “peeing in their seats because these girls were so fabulous.”


The Queen of Versailles: The Nouveau Crash

“I don’t want to give you lessons in self-denial and social responsibility,” an art dealer tells her billionaire boy client in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, by way of refusing to entertain his demand to buy the Rothko Chapel. “Because I don’t believe for a second you’re as crude as you sound.” This scene occurs in David Cronenberg’s soon-to-be-released movie, but the question of whether “self-denial” is a “social responsibility”—particularly when it comes to rich so nouveau it doesn’t realize its appetites strike others as crude—is more vividly brought to life in Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, The Queen of Versailles.

The titular royal is Jackie Siegel, a fortyish IBM engineer turned model turned trophy wife to seventyish time-share mogul David Siegel. Jackie is a shopping addict who admits that she wouldn’t be raising eight kids (seven natural, one “inherited”) if she couldn’t afford a staff of nannies. As the film begins, the Siegel clan’s 26,000-square-foot Florida mansion teems with bodies (kids, maids, dogs) and accumulated detritus. Rather than cut back or clean house, the Siegels are halfway through construction on a new “house,” a complex the size of Fantasyland in the form of a replica of Versailles—modified, natch, to include elements of Vegas’s Paris hotel.

And then comes the crash. The Siegel fortune comes from Westgate Resorts, whose salesmen are indoctrinated in the nobility of talking working-class Americans into buying vacation time-shares they probably can’t afford. But after the 2008 market collapse, the customer base no longer has access to quick and easy credit. Westgate is soon unable to pay outstanding costs on its new flagship property in Las Vegas, the Siegels have to halt construction on Versailles, and Jackie and her kids must begrudgingly adopt a more conservative lifestyle. The matriarch is quick to play the victim. “The banks made us do it,” Jackie claims after Westgate lays off 6,000 workers. “I thought that rescue money was supposed to be passed on to the common people,” she says of the bailout. “Or you know, us.”

I’ve seen The Queen of Versailles twice, and both times the audience laughed frequently at the Siegel family’s sheer tackiness: their life-size oil paintings of themselves, the piles of expensive garbage stacked throughout the family manse, the pet poop drying on what seems like every carpet, the limo Jackie takes to McDonald’s. Schadenfreude is fair play, I guess, but bad taste and questionable hygiene are not crimes—or really even all that LOL-worthy. Putting aside David’s admission that he “got George W. elected president, personally” through means that “may not necessarily have been legal,” the Siegels’ real offense is their complete obliviousness to the way they’re perceived or to the fact that many find how they’ve made or spent their fortune offensive to begin with. It simply never occurred to them that just because they could build the biggest private home in the United States doesn’t mean they should.

Eventually, it emerges that David can either turn over the Vegas Westgate to the bank and lose the $400 million he has already invested while keeping the rest of his empire and all of his personal assets, or he can delay, potentially allowing the property to fall into bankruptcy, and risk losing everything. He picks the latter, and the implication is that there might be something righteous to his stubborn refusal to kowtow. Fueling Versailles is a nagging, unresolved tension between what seems like the filmmaker’s sympathetic portrayal of David’s unwillingness to compromise as an act of libertarian boldness—in the land of the free (market), who has the right to police anyone else’s asset management or consumption?—and the damning evidence Greenfield presents of the family’s ugly gluttony.

Greenfield, a photographer who inserts stills of luridly colorful tableaux into her video vérité, followed the Siegel family for several years, though the film’s time frame is fuzzy, and she has admitted that material presented in Versailles as though it occurred pre-crash was actually shot later. The film hardly feels hastily pasted together: Greenfield filmed long enough to document physical changes in her subjects. For one thing, the oldest biological Siegel kid ages on camera from a chubby, awkward preteen to a coltish teenager, a queen-bee type whose notable poise is only belied by the constellations of acne visible in close-up. It’s a powerful visual metaphor for maturity as a process: As conscious as we’ve all become of economic reality in recent years, we have a long way to go.

How far have the Siegels come? Versailles‘s conclusion on that matter is complicated by a defamation lawsuit David Siegel filed in concurrence with the Sundance premiere and updated recently to implicate distributor Magnolia Pictures. David, whose filing calls the documentary “a staged theatrical production, albeit using nonprofessionals in the starring roles (as themselves),” insists the film’s portrayal of his fall from glory is exaggerated and inaccurate. He has since managed to reverse Westgate’s fortunes. Given that he’s apparently back to predatory business as usual, perhaps he’s most regretful of the contrite stance he seems to take in the film’s final moments, in which he drops catchphrases (“We need to live within our means”) suggesting he has learned the error of his hyper-capitalist ways. But Siegel needn’t worry—in the context of the film, this sudden turnaround reads at worst as total bullshit and at best as too little, too late.


La Silhouette Jumps in la Time Machine

Quite frankly, La Silhouette isn’t cool. Its ugly stretch of West 53rd Street, in the no-man’s-land between Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen, does little to attract scenesters. Salt and pepper are both seasonings here and the most common hair color. The décor is 1990s chic even though the restaurant opened just months ago. And price points reflect an era of expense-account dinners fueled by Jeroboams and maybe some Colombian marching powder. That said, chef David Malbequi’s upscale, mostly French fare generally charms the tastebuds, while a superb front-of-house staff actually seems to care—gasp!—about the well-being of its customers. Old school is new school.

An awkward front bar and hostess station greets diners before opening onto a windowless central dining area. Nicest is a sunken back room that looks out onto a rear patio. This boxy, banquette-filled space resembles a fancy cruise ship, with stairs leading up to the lido deck (actually a private event area). Red-and-white horizontal stripes adorn one wall, and the carpet sports a wavy, swirling pattern. All that’s missing is the seasickness.

But wait. Dinner begins with paper-thin bagel chips and creamy herbed goat cheese drizzled with olive oil—addictive nibbles while you peruse the menu. And the freebies keep on coming: A waiter soon approaches your table, offering not one but three types of bread. Really, what greater pleasure exists than a warm, buttered, crusty roll? Answer: nothing.

Among the appetizers, savor the torchon of foie gras ($24), presented naked on the plate, flanked only by Melba toast and a quenelle of slightly sweet quince and pear chutney. Outdated, maybe, but tasty. Leeks vinaigrette gets an upgrade, artfully composed with duck prosciutto and slivers of Manchego for $14. But the baked potato and black truffle soup ($16) needs work. A hollowed-out spud encases salty, overly chicken-stock-y broth, with grilled-cheese “soldiers” (finger-size sandwiches) alongside—basically what Louis XIV would have served at Versailles had he been an Applebee’s franchisee.

Take comfort in a juicy roast chicken entrée ($26), skin crackling and golden brown, escorted by Brussels sprouts and a porcini marmalade—Mom’s version will never taste as good. An excellently prepared baked halibut ($30) pairs with caramelized cauliflower purée and comes dotted with tiny florets, sliced red grapes, and capers. And pappardelle ($26) finds a bedfellow in wild boar and kale ragout, a pillow of ricotta completing the love nest.

As for desserts, cheesecake ($10) has little flavor and an odd texture—was it made in a dish-sponge factory? The pretty chocolate crepe cake ($10), while visually striking, still can’t beat Lady M’s party of a pastry.

Perhaps because it’s near the Theater District, La Silhouette offers a three-course, $38 prix fixe between 5 and 6:30 every evening, featuring about half the dishes from the regular menu (though the New York strip is swapped out for hanger steak). Dining here at full-fare leaves your wallet $95-per-person emptier, after booze, tax, and tip. Would I rather spend my dough elsewhere? Probably, though I’ll take the set dinner option any day. After all, I have a 1990s expense account—it just hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.


James Kerry Marshall, Black on Black

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of black people simply being human stand out in an art-industrial complex where subjects, artists, purveyors, and consumers are pretty much white folk. In his series of five large grisaille paintings, he imagines a young man lifting his girl through the air in graceful arcs. The lovers are seen from different angles, and viewing the panels in quick succession conveys a swirling, physical joy. This romantic vision is complicated by such kitsch as floating hearts, Black Power fists, and rococo cascades of flowers entwining the word “LOVE.” Marshall masterfully leavens old-school pictorial space with poster-shop sentiment, demanding classical vigor from his compositions while also embracing Everyman tastes. In a beach scene, he transcends purposeful cliché with Albers-esque color sophistication—a cuddling couple basks in an orange sunset, the dusky subtleties of their bodies echoed in the rich contrast of yellow sun flares engulfing a shadowy seagull. A series depicting black artists hefting palettes the size of grand-piano lids plays with an art-historical trope—self-portrait with the tools of the trade. A reminder that the canon has largely turned a blind eye to the black creator, each artist is posed before the ghostly grids you see on studio walls, where drawings and paintings of different sizes have been worked on and then removed. There’s defiance inherent in this poignant absence: Here I am, the subjects seem to say— I won’t disappear even if my work is unseen.

Erica Svec

These intense paintings slalom between hallucinogenic visions and Jasper Johns–ian formality. Break Thru (2008) features a flat, pale-peach human silhouette, its huge, fleshy fist tattooed with a target; trompe l’oeil Polaroids have been painted to the left of this image, creating a grid of vaguely organic shapes. The swaying tassels and enigmatic diamond shapes in Untitled are painted with vivid contrasts, everything geared to a circular motif centering on a rainbow-colored sprocket. With its obscuring vaporous clouds and peppy patterns, Svec-world offers nightmarish flights of fancy anchored by corporeal frisson. Larissa Goldston, 530 W 25th, 212-206-7887. Through June 21.

Robert Polidori: ‘Versailles Etats Transitoires’

Using an 8 x 10 view camera, Polidori captures astonishing details of both the interior and the artistic contents of the ancien régime’s opulent palace at Versailles. An oval portrait of Marie Antoinette, alabaster cheeks rouged like a kewpie doll’s, hangs atop elaborate white molding; grimy handprints mar a concealed door cut into the ornamental trim. Another shot crops a canvas depicting Louis XIV, refashioning his sumptuously flowing robe into rich abstraction; Polidori’s composition contrasts the painting’s saturated colors against tacky burgundy wallpaper and faux marble edging. The prints are all five to six feet high, and one focuses on a modern surveillance camera bluntly mounted to frou-frou cherub decorations. Other shots capture chipped plaster, peeling paint, and a janitor’s floor buffer, documenting royal excess transmogrified into scruffy national theme park. Edwynn Houk, 745 Fifth Ave, 212-750-7070. Through June 14.

Jake & Dinos Chapman

Like Fred and Ginger, sex and death are perennial partners. Here, the Chapman brothers dismember the body and force the parts—brains and genitalia, mostly—into a danse macabre with maggots, rubber chickens, and surgical gloves inflated like distended udders. Arranged on tabletops along with hammers, saws, and drive chains poised to slash, pulverize, and flay the flesh, these gelatinous concoctions are actually fabricated from bronze. Painted in candy colors, the brothers’ “Little Death Machines” feel like the workbenches of psycho-killer clowns. L&M Arts, 45 E 78th, 212-861-0020. Through June 14.

‘Amerika: Back to the Future’

Keynoted to Rammstein’s rollicking music video “Amerika,” in which the Teutonic industrialists roll their R’s while bouncing about in Apollo spacesuits, this group show imagines various and sundry apocalypses by way of South Park. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy present two spinning dioramas of strip malls, the first depopulated and overrun by globally warmed vegetation, another scorched and swarming with zombies; Old Navy and Home Depot signs have been cannibalized into a billboard pleading “HELP US.” One Anthony Goicolea photo features burned-out buildings fronted by battered 55-gallon drums, while another envisions grain elevators swamped by ice floes. In the rear gallery, sculptor David Herbert offers Star Trek’s Enterprise propped up by a wooden framework—the spaceship is covered with Paleolithic markings and riddled with sheltering caves. It’s the same old story: Imperial plans crash and burn, becoming the mythos of the next empire. Postmasters, 459 W 19th, 212-727-3323. Through July 12.


French Confection

Drop-dead hip or cluelessly clueless? Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a candy-colored portrait of France’s infamous teen queen, screening this weekend at the New York Film Festival before opening next Friday, is a graceful, charming, and sometimes witty confection—at least for its first hour.

The famously shy Coppola may be an inscrutable personality, but her bold exposé of backstage royalty opens with a big wink and a few crashing chords, courtesy of Gang of Four. A slice of Austrian apple strudel imported to marry the 15-year-old French dauphin, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) arrives nakedly vulnerable in Versailles. Here, as with Coppola’s previous features, an unformed young woman must find her way in a confusing, if stylish, world—it’s as though the defining moment in the filmmaker’s artistic life was her arrival as a 20-year-old actress on the set of Dad’s Godfather III.

Coppola, who not only directed but also wrote the screenplay, has no sense of being overawed by her material. Where The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation were dreamy, Marie Antoinette is more like marvy. (The director’s preferred term is “girly.”) Largely shot on location at Versailles, the movie is purposefully hermetic. If it were a prison film, which in some ways it is, the title might be The Big Doll House. Marie finds herself in a hissing snake pit where the devil wears Prada and goodness knows what else. She soon gets a white-wig makeover and a closet full of satin hoopskirts, but her position is scarcely secure. Everyone in this kingdom of gossip knows that her marriage to the awkward prince (Jason Schwartzman) has yet to be consummated—let alone produce an heir.

Basically a small story in a gilded frame, with relatively little dialogue to distract from the spectacle, Marie Antoinette is not without a certain vérité. When it premiered at Cannes, few foreign journalists missed the opportunity to compare the rigid hierarchies and inexplicable protocols of the French court to those of the film festival. (Marie’s naive complaint, “This is ridiculous,” squelched by the haughty rejoinder, “This, madam, is Versailles,” got the movie’s biggest laugh.) Coppola, who directed what remains Scarlet Johansson’s least mannered performance, here “documents” Dunst’s innocent boredom as she takes solace in jewels, clothes, and sweets. The ruling complex is more edible than Oedipal.

Marie Antoinette‘s sanitized view of 18th-century hygiene is as tasteful as its deferential—and seemingly unappreciated—Francophilia. Although widely touted (not just by Coppola family retainers) as a leading contender for the Palme d’Or, Marie Antoinette was greeted at Cannes with sour boos. Indeed, likely miffed by her movie’s contemptuous reception, Coppola seems to have violated one of the festival’s sacred rituals by blowing off the traditional post-premiere banquet hosted by Cannes supremo Gilles Jacob—leaving early with her dad in tow.

Such petulance, if that’s what it was, is understandable. Cued by Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy,” Coppola’s pink-and- pistachio color schemes and sugar-frosted mise-en-scéne, all heaps of haute cuisine and powdered towers of hair, are nothing if not easy on the eye. (As a representation of the late-18th-century good life, her images are closer in their shiny opulence to Fragonard’s paintings than Watteau’s.) There’s no disputing Coppola’s adroit party- planning or her delicious casting. Talking from the side of his mouth as though swapping yarns at the Lion’s Head, Rip Torn makes a swaggering Louis XV; a confidently skanky Asia Argento is no less hilarious as his paramour Madame Du Barry. Coppola cousin Schwartzman is suitably diffident as the future Louis XVI***. Steve Coogan and Judy Davis are droll courtiers; Marianne Faithfull is an appropriately grand Empress Maria Theresa.

When the king dies, the young people are stunned, but Marie—whose Valley Girl enthusiasm has already inspired a snooty opera audience to applaud the show—rises to the occasion. Cover girl avant la lettre, she becomes queen of the all-night rave, takes a lover, and, with motherhood, creates her own domain. (Like the NYFF’s opening court pageant The Queen, Marie Antoinette seems haunted by the specter of Diana Spencer, another royally persecuted broodmare who, as noted by Camille Paglia, also met a violent end, pursued by the mob—in France, no less.)

Carefree proprietress of a miniature play farm, Marie A. takes the notion of a people’s princess literally. She masquerades as a milkmaid and reads Rousseau to her ladies-in-waiting—as if. What could be more decadent than such fashionista rusticity? Coppola, however, is temperamentally unable to distinguish history from personality and personality from dress-up; the filmmaker’s attempt to redeem her heroine’s shallowness reveals her own. The more problematic aspects of Marie’s reign—the embarrassing “affair of the necklace,” her mega-Imelda clothes budget, and likely treason against the revolution—are airbrushed away.

Marie’s gravitas arrives like a bolt from the blue; the bubble bursts and the movie crashes definitively to earth at the moment when, informed of her legendary one-liner, the queen turns all, like, serious: “I would never say that.” Whatever. Coppola ends on the image of a tragically trashed imperial boudoir. Let ’em lick icing.

***Editor’s note: The Roman numerals in this paragraph have been corrected.
Return to the review.


Pearl Jam

Most etymologists believe the word baroque to be a French translation of either the Italian term barocco (referring to the 17th-century artistic movement favoring complexity and extravagance) or the Portuguese barroco, an irregularly shaped pearl. True to its name, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a work of idiosyncratic beauty whose plots boast tangled, borderless roots. The Confusion is the trilogy’s second installment, and given Stephenson’s continued fascination with sprawling picaresque, its title reads as warning and prophecy. But there’s magic in the chaos: The title’s own etymology (con-fusion) connotes a wizardly amalgamation of narrative threads (there are at least six) and geographically dispersed characters (well over 50), and the resulting disorientation feels like an occult spell. “For confusion is a kind of bewitchment,” says the novel’s heroine, Eliza, “a moment when what we suppose we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things.”

The Confusion picks up where its predecessor, Quicksilver, ended, following the parallel adventures of Eliza (former double agent at the court of Louis XIV) and her vagabond lover, Jack Shaftoe. Single motherhood has reduced Eliza to a social cast-off living in exile. Never one to shun a challenge, she musters all her bottomless ingenuity to engineer her return to Versailles, where she proceeds to single-handedly refurbish the royal navy and orchestrate an offensive against England—all before the novel’s midpoint. Meanwhile, Jack is having a rougher time as a galley slave in the port of Algiers. With the help of ethnically diverse rogues, he plans an escape that takes them on a journey from the coast of Spain to Cairo and points far beyond.

With the globe as his canvas, Stephenson depicts a world in adolescent self-discovery, whether through geographic exploration (Jack eventually sails to North America) or mathematical foment (as in his two previous novels, cryptography plays a significant role, as do celebrity intellectuals like Newton and Leibniz). A pragmatist at heart, Stephenson knows what truly makes the world go round, and in the 1690s, money ruled with a force like that of Catholicism and smallpox. Even nonmaterialistic Jack gets a taste of wealth when his merry crew hijacks a galleon laden with New World gold. As Eliza says “Every pirate . . . has lurking within him the soul of an accountant,” and indeed, she could be describing Stephenson himself, whose maverick rep belies an academic obsession with complex systems, from tracking the flow of silver from Lyon to London to mapping the increasingly enmeshed genealogies of Europe’s royal houses (one of many examples of confusion/con-fusion).

Never more comfortable than when he’s juggling simultaneous action, Stephenson is an accountant in the most poetic sense. When, for example, Eliza converses on the importance of homemade soap while administering a hand job to the royal cryptographer while also inquiring about the French treasury’s plan to re-smelt the national coinage (another con-fusion!), Stephenson’s meticulous layering of detail suggests a Bach fugue in structure and a Christopher Wren cathedral in scale. Of course, intimidation is nothing new to Stephenson fans, who will be pleased to learn that there’s still a bit of the Snow Crash-er in him, particularly in his penchant for synapse-forming vocabulary and his indiscriminate appetite for scientific arcana.

Less a total immersion in the 17th century than a time machine flyover (“Gold will never be discovered in those places,” says one character upon spying what will become San Francisco), The Confusion derives much of its anachronistic flavor from its liberated female cast. Eliza meets her match in the devious Duchess d’Oyonnax, a Versailles fixture and career widowmaker, while on the other side of the world, Jack confronts the imperious Queen Kottakkal, whose idea of fun is forcing her newest sex slave to swim through croc-infested waters. Compared to these career girls, the men seem downright prehistoric, busying themselves with such dusty disciplines as alchemy and library science. Aside from the ever youthful Jack, only Daniel Waterhouse, rejuvenated after his bladder operation in Quicksilver, totters about with any sense of enterprise, his mind fixated on founding a college in that land of limitless freedom, America.

A middle-chapter novel, The Confusion offers little denouement or resolution: Wars rage, intellectual debates simmer, and except for one breathtaking exchange, Jack and Eliza remain apart. One has to wonder: How will Stephenson steer this ocean liner into port? (The final installment is modestly titled The System of the World.) His boundless curiosity is ultimately personified in the form of the precocious Princess Caroline, who, upon receiving a gigantic, hollowed-out globe for her birthday, climbs in and spins around, proclaiming, “The world is revolving around me!” And thus Neal Stephenson: ecstatically childlike and dizzy from his own omnipotence. His globe (an irregular pearl?) never ceases to astonish us or its own creator, even as it grows smaller with each new discovery.


Palace in Wonderland

I like to think of Kathryn Davis as the love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll, with a splash of Nabokov, Brontë, and Angela Carter in the gene pool. Gorging herself on language, Davis spews forth disorienting tales which seem to have escaped from Alice’s rabbit hole. Boundaries between past and present are leaky; ornate fantasy mingles with mundane reality. In 1988’s Labrador, for instance, two sisters are regularly visited by angels and demons, while in Hell (1998), a little girl’s dollhouse comes to life.

In Davis’s novels, characters are haunted by traces of history that intrude on the present. Hell is her tour de force, a topsy-turvy anti-narrative that juxtaposes the domesticated misery of a 1950s family with the excesses of 19th-century master chef Antonin Caréme and Victorian household expert Edwina Moss. The phrase “Something is wrong in the house” runs throughout the book, alluding to some obscure metaphysical mystery that has no solution. The Walking Tour (1999), another eccentric thriller, takes place in the dystopic near-future. Susan, its narrator, has dedicated her life to unraveling the puzzling death of her mother, immersing herself in old letters, diaries, and court transcripts. In composing a biography of her parents’ life, she tries to create meaning out of the chaos of her world.

The Walking Tour runs circles around biography, whereas Versailles, Davis’s fifth and latest novel, follows the lifeline of Marie Antoinette with surprising faithfulness. Unlike Susan, who dwells in the past, Antoinette lives for the moment and fatally closes her eyes to the onrush of history. Versailles buoyantly recounts the queen’s life (as narrated by her own soul), starting with her placid childhood as the ignored youngest child of the Austrian empress through her marriage at 14 to the future King Louis XVI and finally her gory death by guillotine.

Marie Antoinette’s name signifies the ultimate rich bitch, one so selfish she triggered the French Revolution. During her life and after death, she was publicly reviled in pamphlets that accused her of promiscuity, gambling, lesbianism, stupidity, spying, greed, and incest. Historical revisionists (such as Antonia Fraser in her passionately sympathetic biography of last year) argue that most of these, including the famous “Let them eat cake” speech, were just scurrilous gossip—that the populace projected their rage and frustration onto the queen’s body, using her attempts at pleasure and individuality as further incitement to revolt. Versailles falls into this revisionist camp, though with Davis’s voluminous imagination, it’s hard to imagine her inhabiting anything so limiting as a camp. She uses the bare but resonant facts of the case as an outline; inside Antoinette’s skeleton she sets off a fireworks display of voracious desire and unfulfilled wishes.

Neither slut nor dodo, Davis’s queen is a sheltered young thing adrift in a palace where there’s nothing to do but indulge: in dancing, truffles, jewels, pretty dresses. Her mother sold her off as a pawn to solidify Austria’s position with France, but neither Antoinette nor her husband have any interest in political power, preferring more sensual pursuits. The novel never attempts to transform this historical villainess into a proto-feminist heroine—that would be too simplistic—but she does allow the joyousness of the queen’s immersion in pleasure to coexist with her willful refusal to acknowledge the growing discontent beyond the palace gates. She makes Antoinette intelligent enough to be held accountable—and evasive: “On that May morning when a crowd of peasants poured through the gates at the Place d’Armes . . . with their rumbling stomachs and loaves of moldy bread, who knows why I didn’t see among them the invisible hand of the future, wielding a bloody knife? It wasn’t because I was too stupid. It wasn’t even because I was unwilling to face facts. No, it was because I was completely uninterested in food . . . and off somewhere else, sequestered as usual, no doubt taking a walk.”

This Antoinette has a talent for distancing herself from the reader—a quality that would have been useful for a woman in her situation. Like a participant in some 18th-century Real World, she is observed all the time. Members of the court crowd into her room to watch her eat breakfast, get dressed, even give birth. She describes the sensation of sitting for a portrait, feeling:

an almost unendurable sense of my self, of the surfaces of Antoinette, her eyes trying not to blink, her lips growing more and more pursed and dry, her tongue dying to lick them. And then just when I’d think I couldn’t bear to sit there like that one minute longer, I’d suddenly find myself on the outside looking in, a traveler in a carriage passing an apparently deserted house at nightfall. . . . yet somewhere deep inside, in the deepest darkest corner of the cellar, there would be a little sleeping animal who would prick up its ears.

Struggling to preserve some small fragment of private identity, she withdraws into memories of her youth, captured in Davis’s glimmering prose. As the novel rushes toward its inevitable conclusion, Antoinette becomes more vague, dropping only passing mentions of crucial historical episodes—like the Diamond Necklace Affair and the peasant women’s march on the palace—that may leave the reader turning to history books in search of more detail.

Running alongside Antoinette’s life story is a guided tour of Versailles, a place that owes its existence to the monstrous whims of long-dead kings. For the queen it’s both a cocoon and a bell jar; she sometimes imagines the spirits of scheming courtiers and brokenhearted mistresses bouncing around its grand hallways. The palace becomes a lens with which to view the royal decadence and hierarchies of the time, but in the end, Davis uses it mainly as a flamboyant, gorgeously described backdrop. All of her attentions are focused on Antoinette, scolding her just once for her self-absorption: “Was ever a woman so sad, ever a woman so hopeless? Yes, Antoinette, probably all of them, if truth be told. Brave women, stuffing rags in their shoes, foraging for bread in the streets of Paris.”

Marie Antoinette’s life is a narrative set in stone—punctuated by that final invitation to a beheading—and that makes Versailles less of an adventure than some of Davis’s previous novels. But for an inventive writer, even a life as gossiped about and overanalyzed as Antoinette’s is still crammed with dark, unanswerable questions that human beings, whether queen or peasant, can’t stop asking: “As if it were a mystery, and there were a way to solve it. As if it were possible to figure out who slipped up, and where.”


Take a Bow

Although primarily a
classical composer (best known for his opera The Ghosts of Versailles), John Corigliano
received an Oscar nomination in 1980 for his trippy score to Altered States. His second stab—for the bomb Revolution—was less successful; his music was buried in sound effects, he says, leaving him reluctant to pursue his movie career any further. It took 12 years and a project where music takes center stage to change his mind.
I took The Red Violin because a violin is the main star of the film,” Corigliano says. “The music that’s played, therefore, is something that people will listen to. And you listen differently than if it were just background music”—especially since the violinist on the soundtrack is young virtuoso Joshua Bell.

Corigliano says he wasn’t interested in filling in the blanks between authentic pieces by Bach and Mozart.
He wanted instead to create
a score integral to the storytelling. “Since the violin
personifies the woman who
dies at the beginning of the film, I wanted to have a theme associated with her, which then undergoes variations—whether it’s Bachian, Mozartian, or Paganini-like to reflect the different eras. Even gypsies play the theme in their style, although it’s harder to recognize. The film needed this musical glue to pull it together. When you take five disparate stories told over 300 years, if you don’t have a really strong thread,
it can seem like a bunch of anecdotes.”