count axel von fersen

Axel von Fersen
The Swedish count Axel de Fersen is celebrated for the special friendship he cultivated with queen Marie-Antoinette. He also played an eminent political role by distinguishing himself on the battlefield during the American War of Independence and, above all, as an ardent defender of the royal family during the Revolution.
Count Axel de Fersen met Marie-Antoinette for the first time at a masked ball at the Opera in 1774. He made a strong impression on the queen at the time and she exclaimed “He’s an old acquaintance” when she met him again at the French court four years later. After moving to Versailles, in 1779 he joined the circle of intimate friends of the queen and gained her backing. He thus obtained the post of colonel of a German infantry troop sent to fight with the rebels in the American War of Independence in 1780. After his return from America and thanks to the intercession of the queen and of Gustavus III, king of Sweden, he was appointed colonel of the Royal Swedish regiment in 1783. He divided his time between the court and his regiment.
The nature of the relationship between the Swedish count and the queen has been much commented on. Historically, their liaison is not certified and this mystery nourishes the legend. Nevertheless, their secret correspondence clearly shows their feelings for each other, as does that between Fersen and his own circle. Fersen wrote to his sister, Sophie Piper: “I’ve taken the decision never to marry. It would be against nature… I cannot belong to the one person whom I would truly wish to be mine… So I do not wish to belong to anybody.”
When the Revolutionary upheaval began, the queen’s friends disappeared and only Fersen, her faithful adviser, stayed on. He organised the flight of the royal family to Varenne in 1791 and tried in every way to save them by making diplomatic overtures to foreign rulers. The death of Marie-Antoinette, guillotined in 1793, deeply affected him: “I have now lost everything that I had in the world. (…) She whom I loved so much, for whom I would have given my life a thousand times, no longer exists.” He died in Sweden in 1810.

Marie Antoinette

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Jamie Dornan, and Rose Byrne

Directed by Sofia Coppola

This film follows the life of Marie Antoinette (Dunst), the Queen of France leading up to the French Revolution. Born and raised in the Austrian Empire, Antoinette is married off to Louis Auguste (Schwartzman), Dauphin of France. A confused foreigner, she is completely unaccustomed to the strange, ritualistic culture of Versailles. Eventually, Antoinette and her husband ascend to the thrown, but she is far from the wholesome image of royalty. Colorful characters like the Duchess of Polignac (Byrne) and Count Axel von Fersen (Dornan) pull Antoinette into a life of apparent decadence and debauchery. However, with the impending French Revolution, Antoinette must grow up fast.

Coppola (dir) made this film less in the style of a traditional biopic and more like a teen dramedy. There are a few historical discrepancies that make this film more like a modern coming of age story (and more like the rest of Coppola’s filmography). The soundtrack is almost entirely classic rock and alternative pop. The opening scene is a classic teen movie trope; Antoinette is begrudgingly woken up, fully decked out with bedhead. The shot in which she and her friends are giggling excitedly at Louis’ likeness before meeting him in person is straight out of any high school flick. Antoinette even asks her carriage driver, “Are we there yet?” At Versailles, the nature of her petty rivalries with other women at court is comparable to that of Cady Heron and Regina George in Mean Girls. Her authority figures are always butting in, telling her she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, a common teen film trope. The several scenes of her trying on clothes, gossiping, and sneaking out with her gal pals could be found in any high school coming of age movie. There’s even a shot of Antoinette trying on shoes in which a pair of blue converse can be seen in the background, an obvious allusion to the contemporary teen. Coppola is putting a historical narrative about a French queen’s strife around 150 years ago in terms of a modern, high school struggle for popularity. She makes the story relatable, so the viewer can better understand the historical sequence of events.

Coppola not only makes the situation relatable, but she is very successful in humanizing the queen herself. Marie Antoinette is traditionally seen as a cold and cruel historical figure. The famous “let them eat cake” line attributed to her plants the queen as the last straw of the French Revolution. However, Coppola transforms Antoinette into just another immature teenager, somebody we can all identify with. Scenes of her playing with her puppy or drawing with condensation on a window show a playful side the viewer relates to. The film also succeeds in separating her from the France’s financial problems. It is clear that Versailles was already absurdly opulent when she gets there. The gratuitous decadency of French court even shocks Antoinette when she first arrives. She opts to wear a plain white dress instead of the rococo fashions at her humbler chateau. The film depicts France’s assistance in the American Revolution as the catalyst of financial crisis. Antoinette, on the other hand, reads enlightenment literature by Rousseau and tells the court jeweler to stop sending diamonds when she hears about the common man’s struggle. The film shows how Antoinette is singled out by the people as the cause of their poverty, but dismisses these claims as erroneous. Coppola directly counters the idea that Marie Antoinette singlehandedly and carelessly drove France to bankruptcy.

Marie Antoinette does a great job of illustrating the pressure she was under. When Antoinette’s mother tells her she will be marrying the dauphin, she warns her daughter that “all eyes will be on you.” Her mother’s premonition proves true. When Antoinette first meets Louis, his large retinue is present, staring and whispering. As she first ascends the steps of Versailles, she must walk through a herd of her new subjects, scrutinizing their new dauphine. The film is packed with scenes like these in which the audio is overridden by the rude whispers from Antoinette’s spectators, visibly bothering the new queen. She is also taken from her home and placed in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar customs. When Antoinette first arrives on French soil, she is immediately branded an outsider after hugging a countess out of turn. She is then told that she “must bid farewell to [her] party and leave all of Austria behind;” they even take her puppy away. After being stripped of anything farmiliar, Antoinette is mocked rather than embraced. Two women whisper “I hope you like apple strudel,” mocking Antoinette’s nationality. After her family conflicts with French interests, she asks herself, “Am I to be Austrian or the dauphine of France?” Antoinette must consider how much of herself she is willing to leave behind. She is also under great pressure to have an heir.  She is told, “You represent the future… everything is on the wife.” It is constantly made clear to Antoinette that her position is still unsure if she doesn’t have a child with Louis. She is made to believe Louis’ sexual incompetence is her own fault, even though it is clear to the viewer that this isn’t the case. We are able sympathize with the great stress Antoinette is under.

More so than any of the film I have written on so far, Marie Antoinette was met with mixed reviews. Many critics took issue to the light frivolity of the film that came with Coppola’s “teen movie” approach as well as the historical inaccuracies that resulted. I, however, am appreciative of Coppola’s success in making a hated historical figure understandably human. This, along with the stunning visuals, is why I love this movie so much.



Sadly, the picture many people now have of Antoinette is of her running through Versailles with a glass of champagne in her hand, eating bonbons all day long, and rolling in the bushes with a lover. In reality, she was a teetotaler who ate frugally. She was notorious for her intense modesty. Even some prominent biographers, who have insisted upon the possibility of an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, have had to admit that there is no solid evidence.

Marie-Antoinette, Daughter of the Caesars - Elena Maria Vidal