I’ve been meaning to review The Fabulous Life of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette (2015) for a while, and since I was sick, and in dire need of unchallenging subject matter and pretty visuals, this seemed like a good time to dive into a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: the life and career of 18th-century French portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Full disclosure, my Master’s thesis focuses on Vigee-Lebrun’s controversial 1783 portrait of Marie-Antoinette (and its replacement), so while I hesitate to call myself an expert in her life and work, I lived and breathed it for several years all the same. So, my already-high-bar here is even higher than usual.
Documentary or docudrama?
When I first came across the stills from this show, I had the impression that it was more of a docudrama than outright documentary. I was somewhat disappointed to find that, upon watching it, it’s actually a straightforward documentary on the painter, with all the typical commentary from experts and an unseen narrator who does most of the talking. That said, we’ve been sorely lacking even a rudimentary documentary on Vigee-Lebrun until now, so at least this is filling a giant gap in art history documentaries. What it does mean is that there is far less of the “costume content” than I was expecting based on the stills alone.
In other words, we still need an actual film about Vigee-Lebrun, complete with fabulous costumes, so if anyone out there reading this is in a position to pitch a script, please do so. You’d make me very happy.
So, what about the costumes?
Most of the costume content is interspersed around the images of portraits and paintings by Vigee-Lebrun and her contemporaries, as well as the usual expert commentary from various art historians and curators. Some of the costumes are pretty good. Most of them, however, fluctuate between “poorly fitted” and “why is that random chick hanging out in just a corset in the Queen’s salon?”
How is it as a documentary?
Not bad, truly. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the nuances of Vigee-Lebrun’s relationships with her clientele and patrons, or the scandals that followed her based on those relationships (with men and women, alike). The script appears to derive heavily from her 1835 memoir Souvenirs, which is a polished and lovely autobiography that skims over a lot of the less savory things about her life, like her crappy relationship with her husband, her supposed affairs with various noblemen, and other salacious tidbits that I always found more interesting than her glossy self-promotion. But the highlights are all there, from her loving relationship with her father who doted and encouraged her talent in an era when women were not seen as serious artists, to her remarkable artistic ability that literally did take Paris by storm at the tender age of 23, to her controversial acceptance into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783, as well as her close professional relationship with artist Jacques-Louis David, who was eventually responsible for her 13-year exile from France.
Note: I still desperately want to see a film that focuses on these two. Maybe I should just fucking write it myself.
Worth watching if you want the basic overview of Vigee-Lebrun’s life without reading her memoir. Just don’t expect spectacular costume content.