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Killer Queen: Marie Antoinette is having her moment, again

Robert Dominguez
New York Daily News
Kirsten Dunst portrays Marie Antoinette in the movie "Marie Antoinette."

Pop culture is losing its head over Marie Antoinette. More than 200 years after a revolutionary mob led her to the guillotine, the fashionista French monarch is back in style. Not only is her tumultuous life the basis for "Marie Antoinette," director Sofia Coppola's biopic that opens Friday, the controversial queen is also the subject of two recent books - a nonfiction tome and a novel - plus a PBS documentary.

And last month, Fashion Week runways in New York featured plenty of bubble skirts, ruffles and corset-like blouses, a look seemingly inspired by her 18th-century sartorial splendor.

As the trendsetting wife of King Louis XVI - think Jackie O in a sky-high pouf and puffy ball gown - Marie Antoinette is remembered for caring more about being a fashion plate than for putting food on the plates of the starving masses.

Any history student worth his weight in brioche knows the flippant phrase "Let them eat cake!" - her supposed solution to feeding the hungry French peasantry. Yet for a historical figure who has long symbolized royal excess, callousness and cluelessness, she is enjoying quite a revival.

"It's the story of a woman who suffered and then was transformed, yet at the same time wasn't a very good queen," says David Grubin, producer-director of "Marie Antoinette," a documentary that debuted on PBS in late September.

"Her life story resonates because there's a conflation of sex and politics," adds Grubin. "The people vilify her and go after her because she doesn't do her job - which is to bear children - because the king isn't sleeping with her. And her upbringing of enormous wealth and privilege detaches her from the people."

While the documentary aims to educate by examining the queen's life against a backdrop of the French Revolution, Coppola's film is an opulent, fictional retelling of the court intrigue, politics, sex, scandals and betrayals that defined her era - complete with a pop score and Young Hollywood casting.

"Marie Antoinette" stars Kirsten Dunst ("The Virgin Suicides," the "Spider-Man" movies) as the flighty teen daughter of Austrian royalty who was betrothed at 14 to Louis, the future king of France (Jason Schwartzman, of "Rushmore" and "I (Heart) Huckabees").

"Reading about her in high school, I had always thought her to be such a fascinating subject," says Coppola. "She really was a celebrity at that time (and) at a very young age. So I tried to make something that (wasn't) a typical period piece."

The two books likewise approach the same fascinating subject from different tacks. Published in September, Caroline Weber's "Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution" (Henry Holt) shows how the insecure young royal's fashion sense helped forge her sense of self.

In the novel "Abundance" (William Morrow), which hit bookstores this month, Sena Jeter Naslund has Marie Antoinette tell her story in the first person to show how she goes from timid teen to canny queen.

While there's no denying that Marie was in over her head, these new takes do make her out to be sympathetic. The infamous "cake" quote, for example, is now widely thought to have been misattributed to her.

"She began as a frivolous, lightheaded woman who becomes queen at 19 (with) no sense of dignity of what it means to be a queen," says Grubin.

"Yet she suffered so terribly and unfairly. She became the symbol for everything the revolution hates, but now you see how this intense pain transformed her into a serious person."

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