Marie Antoinette’s Guide to Decoding Period Films

Each week, Marie Antoinette answers questions on a range of subjects regarding life and love. If you’d like Marie Antoinette to answer your question, send an email to whatwouldmarieantoinette do at gmail dot com

Your queen admits she prefers films that portray her as attractive, as in this film by Sophia Coppola.

Dear Marie,

I love period movies but my boyfriend does not. He hates accents, costumes, powdered hair and doesn’t see the point of things that happened so long ago. Really, I suspect he thinks it’s all above his head — which I know it isn’t. I love period movies and don’t want to watch them without him. What do I do?

-Merchant Ivory Gal

My darling Merchant Ivory gal,

You likely know I wasn’t much for studies. I struggled with most history and usually got my tutors to do my homework for me. If only I’d had the movies — I could have had them watch those instead. (I jest). I’ve fallen in love with your moving picture shows and find that m any have visual cues that help anyone — regardless of their background — understand that the man in black cloak is the villain and that the mousy girl is our beloved heroine.  I’ve collected these cues in a special list that you may share with you intended. Let him study it, like a traveler might memorize words like “bathroom” and “Policeman” before visiting a foreign country. I guarantee they will give him comfort and help him through any costume drama.

Decoding the Period Film: Movie Scenes and their Meanings
What happens: Corset tying
What it means: Society is limiting. Just for ladies.

What happens: Men play cards, drink, slap each other on the back or ride horses.
What it means: Being a guy has always been awesome.

What happens: Characters are filmed through metal fences or stair banisters.
What it means: Society is a prison.

What happens: A violin or piano is played beautifully during a horrible tragedy  (as repo men haul away a family’s possessions, as families during the Blackout hide from bombs, etc.)
What it means: Beauty (and humanity) survives despite destruction.

What happens: A character constantly looks outside through comically large windows.
What it means: This person is on the fringe of society.

What happens: A lady flaps her fan or flashes her ankles.
What it means: This woman is a whore.

What happens: Characters play a game of chess.
What it means: Life is a game of chess!

What happens: A character looks in a gilded mirror.
What it means: The character finally sees who she is, really.

What happens: A character is painted or drawn.
What it means: Other characters get to see who another character is, really.

What happens: Wealthy people dance or eat.
What it means: Rich people are unhappy and poisoned by privilege. Also, they hate being rich (Which is surprising, you know, because they’re rich).

What happens: Poor people dance or eat.
What it means: Poor people are happy and enriched by hardship.  Also, they like being poor (which is surprising, you know, because they’re poor).

Not always unique to period movies, but helpful nonetheless:


  • Good guys: Are nice to animals and filmed in bright happy places with flowers and fields for romping.
  • Bad guys: Are mean to animals, wear capes and twist their moustaches. They usually filmed with lightning and scary castles in the background.
  • Misunderstood guys. These men either look like or actually are Colin Firth.
  • Small animals and pets: Beloved pets usually foreshadow a horrible action that the main characters will need to avoid. For instance, any time there is a parakeet shown in a movie, the parakeet will be offed in a bizarre gruesome way teaching us all about the heartlessness of violence or the need for the powerful to squash the defenseless (being the object of such an important lesson is of little consolation to the parakeet). Only charismatic dogs ever survive.
  • Blond women. Usually ingenues. They (sadly) are sometimes dumb.
  • Brunette women. If their hair is dark and curly, they are usually rebellious and fast. If their hair is mousy and straight, they are usually quite dull.
  • Ugly people, regardless of sex. Ugly people can never be trusted in movies. Often in life as well, but always in movies.

Note: Your queen is only having a bit of fun and thinks all historical movies quite wonderful. Especially the ones devoted to her. What movies would you recommend the queen see (or not see)?


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