When the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen came to Versailles in 1778, Marie Antoinette seemed taken with him immediately and brought him into her inner circle, even inviting him for suppers in her private apartment. By the beginning of 1779, most people considered him a favorite of the queen (Lever 123). Fersen was reportedly very reserved and respectful while with the queen, which was unlike her flirtations with other courtiers (Lever 123). When Fersen abruptly left to fight in the American Revolutionary War in 1779, the queen was distraught, and her public display of her unhappiness at his departure seemed to legitimize the swirling rumors about their relationship (Lever 125).
After Fersen returned to the Court of Versailles, they resumed their previous relationship and became even closer over the winter of 1779-1780 (Lever 125). Fersen attended all the parties the Queen organized and often accompanied her to the Opera balls until he once again left for war to pursue his military ambitions (Lever 125). In 1787, when Fersen was once again in Versailles, some of the letters he wrote suggested that Marie Antoinette built him quarters situated above her own apartments in order to keep him close (Lever 188). While all reports maintain that Fersen always kept a respectful manner when with the queen, some of his letters strongly suggest he returned her feelings. For example, in a letter to his sister, Fersen declared that he did not want to marry, because the only person he wanted to be with, who truly loved him, he could not marry. He almost certainly meant Marie Antoinette:
“I have made up my mind. I do not want to contract conjugal ties; they are contrary to nature… I cannot belong to the only person to whom I want to belong, the one who really loves me, and so I do not want to belong to anyone” (Lever 152).
No letters exchanged between him and the Queen survived from the time he was abroad, and he destroyed the sections of his journal that mentioned Marie Antoinette. It is clear that they did write each other often, though, since his notebook survives that lists all the letters he sent by name and date (Lever 151). He lists all letters to Marie Antoinette as to “Josephine” and the dates of their correspondence match exactly to the dates he was away from France (Lever 152).
The way that popular culture representations deal with Marie Antoinette’s relationship with Axel von Fersen is very telling about the way they present her sexuality. Sophia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette, from 2006 only includes Fersen in a few scenes, making their relationship into more of a fling. Their relationship plays out over a few scenes, and they hardly speak a few sentences to each other. Compared to other retellings of her life in popular culture that emphasize the love between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, in this film he has a very small role. There are really only four scenes in this film where he appears. In the first, they meet at a party in Paris and speak a few words to each other. Next are two scenes where they are in a group of courtiers at Versailles and Marie Antoinette starts to show favor towards him while the other courtiers look on disapprovingly. In the montage that follows, they are lovers, starting with a scene of Marie Antoinette lounging on a bed wearing only knee-high stockings and covering her nakedness with only a fan as he approaches. By the time the montage ends, Fersen is leaving to fight in the Revolutionary War and he is not seen or mentioned again in the film. Their sexual relationship is emphasized over their love for one another, and the film seems to use her relationship with Fersen only as a way for Marie Antoinette to flaunt her sexuality.
Sexuality is an important theme in the 1938 film, Marie Antoinette, and Axel von Fersen has a major role in this. The film is not so different from eighteenth and nineteenth century France in that it portrays feminine authority negatively and implies that masculinity was “the only potential savior of the French throne” (Goodman 250). Made in 1938, the film characterizes the “turmoil over sex-roles that rumbled through American society in the thirties,” explaining the positive representation of masculinity (Goodman 240-241). This idea is clear in the contrast between Axel von Fersen and the Duc d’Orleans, the film’s villain. Duc d’Orleans in the film is portrayed as feminine in appearance with penciled eyebrows, frilly clothing, and painted lips. The film charges him with steering Marie Antoinette towards her life of extravagance and luxury, while Axel von Fersen, depicted as the ideal of masculinity, influences her to be a good queen, mother, and wife (Goodman 247-248). In order to make Marie Antoinette a sympathetic and “good” character, the film portrays the Duc d’Orleans as the instigator every time she displays her sexuality. It is only when Madame du Barry insults her and the Duc d’Orleans encourages her that Marie Antoinette turns to a life of partying and gambling as a method of survival at Versailles. In one scene the Duc d’ Orleans directly tells Marie Antoinette that to “conquer Madame du Barry,” who had been antagonizing Marie Antoinette since their first meeting, she only had to embrace the social life at Versailles.
Then, it is Axel von Fersen who convinces her to stop her frivolities and become a good queen. It is only Fersen that makes the queen feel ashamed of her partying, flirting, and gambling, and the film heavily implies that she only stops acting this way because of his influence on her.
Her relationship with Axel von Fersen in this film sharply contrasts with Coppola’s depiction. In this film, Fersen’s love for her is a central plot point and he carries a major role in the film’s events. He declares that he has loved her since childhood, and she feels ashamed for acting so frivolously in front of him and changes her behavior after his confession. There is no mention or suggestion in the film about a sexual relationship between the two, and the film emphasizes their emotional ties instead. He follows through with his declaration of love by plotting the royal family’s flight from Paris when she was imprisoned there. Then, when that fails, he turns himself in to the Revolutionary government just for the chance to see her the night before her execution. The film ends with Fersen, after Marie Antoinette’s execution, looking sadly at the ring she gave him.