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Versailles: Icing on this queen’s cake

Times Staff Writer

IT isn’t easy to feel sorry for Marie Antoinette when you are standing in the French Garden at Versailles, where the flowers were changed every night to fend off royal boredom. It isn’t easy even if you know she ascended, unready, to the French throne at 18, was a tender mother, bore her well-known fate on the guillotine with dignity and probably never said, “Let them eat cake.”

In the last few weeks, with spring in the air, I visited Versailles, about a 40-minute train ride from Paris, to better understand the infamous young queen who created a flush, deliriously decadent, delicately rococo world of her own at the Petit Trianon, the Versailles estate given to her by her husband, King Louis XVI. There, she blithely gambled, danced, dabbled in horticulture, churned butter in monogrammed porcelain vats, ordered two new pairs of shoes a week and built a private theater for her amateur theatricals while France slid into poverty and despair.

In July, the Petit Trianon and its surrounding pleasure pavilions, farms, cottages and recently renovated gardens are to open as an ensemble, for about $10 a ticket. If Marie Antoinette’s ghost remains wakeful, it is most likely to be found here.

In the more than two centuries that have elapsed since Marie Antoinette’s execution, opinions about her have varied widely. Her contemporary Germaine de Stael bristled at the injustice of the queen’s trial, and 19th century French biographers Edmond and Jules Goncourt found reasons to defend her.

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Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography that the whole French Revolution could have been avoided by locking the queen in a convent. In a widely read 1932 biography “Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman,” author Stefan Zweig accused the queen of gross heedlessness, “which made her, for nearly two decades, sacrifice the essential to the unimportant, duty to pleasure, the grave to the gay, France to Versailles and the real world to the world of her fantasies.”

In 2001, Antonia Fraser’s judiciously sympathetic “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” revived debate about the queen’s character and inspired director Sofia Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation”) to make a movie about her life, which is to be released this fall.

Coppola, who, like Marie Antoinette, was born to wealth, privilege and the limelight, said she could understand the young queen’s plight, launched into a tornado of great events when girls her age nowadays are just graduating from high school. Recently, Coppola told Paris Vogue that there are lots of Marie Antoinettes in Beverly Hills.

Coppola arrived in France to start filming the $40-million movie in and around Paris last spring. Actress Kirsten Dunst was there, to play the role of Marie Antoinette, as was Francis Ford Coppola, the director’s father and one of the film’s executive producers, along with cameramen, wig makers, designers, wardrobe mistresses, gaffes, grips and caterers.

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One of Coppola’s first coups was to get Pierre ArrizoliClementel, chief conservator at the Chateau of Versailles, to allow her to film in the palace and at the Petit Trianon. According to the chateau’s press department, scenes were shot in the chapel (where Marie Antoinette married the ungainly, insecure young man who became King Louis XVI of France in 1774); the Salon d’Hercule and Hall of Mirrors in the main palace; the Petit Trianon, its gardens and, most notably, the fragile, wooden miniature theater where the queen indulged her passion for play-acting, coached by stars of the Comedie-Francaise.

I saw the queen’s theater, the French Pavilion and the Petit Trianon on one of the many guided visits offered by the chateau, which include subjects as varied as a day in the life of Marie Antoinette, the American Declaration of Independence and the bathrooms at Versailles.

Though tours of major sights in the main palace are given in English, smaller, more specialized tours like the one I took are offered only in French. But I understood enough to learn, among other things, that huge blocks of frozen water in the sunken ice houses near the Petit Trianon lasted for as long as five years; that Marie Antoinette’s amateur theatricals took place in daylight, an economy motivated by the high cost of candles; and that her gardens supplanted an earlier horticultural park created for Louis XV. Many of his exotic specimens were sent to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where they were destroyed during the Revolution.

On another visit, I toured the newly renovated English Garden and hameau, an ersatz country village with fake fissures and cracks to make it look authentically rustic, where there are farm animals, vineyards, pastures, lakes and cottages built from scratch by the queen’s architects. It was the day of the first general strike over the first employment contract law, known by its initials CPE, a controversial proposal to loosen laws that govern the firing of young workers in France. So it took me three times as long to get to Versailles by train as it usually does. Afterward, there was no reliable way to get back to the city, except by taking a cab for about $50. I felt for the first time a little like Marie Antoinette, but that’s as far as my sympathy for her went.

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During her reign, the queen saw little of France, moving among palaces around the city, such as Fontainebleau in the southeastern suburbs, where she decorated a delightful rococo salon and indulged her passion for gambling. She partied and saw plays in the capital but mostly preferred Versailles.

As a result, only a few traces of her remain in Paris: a re-creation of the cell at the Conciergerie where she stayed before going to the guillotine on Oct. 16, 1793; a few of her objets d’art in the Louvre; memorabilia in the Musee Carnavalet, including a haunting 1793 portrait of Marie Antoinette as a prisoner, in a sober black and white frock; and statues of the queen and king at the Bourbon tomb in the Cathedral of St. Denis, north of Paris.

For a year before being moved to the Conciergerie, she was interned in the lugubrious Temple Prison, torn down in the 19th century. There she heard her husband had been executed on Jan. 21, 1793, was separated from her children and saw the head of her dear friend, the Princess de Lamballe, paraded by her window on a pike. The princess, one of her most loyal supporters, was killed and her body mutilated by an angry mob at nearby Rues St. Antoine and Pavee.

On reflection, it’s those sad, after-the-ball places from Marie Antoinette’s life that stir me most and make me remember something I learned in a college English course: Tragic heroes, like Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth, are great men with fatal flaws.

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After visiting Versailles, I decided that Sofia Coppola would be more successful projecting Marie Antoinette’s flaws than her greatness. I look forward to seeing the Petit Trianon on the silver screen, but I won’t forget that its mistress needed two new pairs of shoes a week.

Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at latimes.com/susanspano.

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Home of Marie Antoinette

Versailles is about 40 minutes southwest of Paris by train. The station closest to the chateau is Versailles Rive Gauche, which can be reached from the Gare St. Lazare or any of the Paris stops of the RER C line.

Fat Tire Bike Tours, 24 Rue Edgar Faure, 75015 Paris; 011-33-1-56-58-10-54, www.fattirebiketoursparis.com, offers bikes tours at the Chateau of Versailles from March to October; $60 per person, including train transportation between Paris and Versailles and entrance to the chateau.

The Trianon Palace & Spa, 1 Boulevard de la Reine, Versailles; 011-33-1-30-84-50-00, www.westin.com/trianonpalace, is a luxury hotel superbly located for visits to the Grand and Petit Trianons; prices for about $200-$600, depending on the season.

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A less expensive option is the Hotel la Residence du Berry, 14 Rue d’Anjou, Versailles; 011-33-1-39-49-07-07, www.hotel-berry.com, in an 18th century building within walking distance of the chateau; doubles start around $150.

For information: Chateau de Versailles, 011-33-1-30-83-78-00, www.chateauversailles.fr; Versailles Tourist Office, 011-33-1-39-24-88-88, www.versailles-tourisme.com.


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