#482: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette
Initial release: 2006
Director: Sofia Coppola
When Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette opens, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve put on the wrong movie. After all, it opens with the thump and crash of Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It,” set to hot pink opening credits over black, at one point briefly cutting to Kirsten Dunst luxuriantly lounging on a couch and idly licking at a cake as a maid fits her shoes.
I’m pleased to inform you, however, that you are indeed watching the right movie. Sofia, daughter of Francis Ford, had previously made herself a critical darling with the Japanophilic romcom Lost in Translation, but it’s here, with a biopic based on Antonia Fraser’s definitive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, that Coppola shows off her chops and wit as a filmmaker.
Coppola understands, perhaps better than most, that history does not exist. It’s fundamentally impossible to tell a completely true and accurate account of the events of history. So you might as well try and say something meaningful. Coppola prefers to look past the dry textbook of the day-to-day historical record, and instead presents Marie Antoinette as a person: a scared, lonely, isolated 14 year old girl, shipped off from Austria never to return to serve as a diplomatic bargaining chip in France, placed in a royal court that never fully accepts her, at the head of a kingdom that was already sick of her kind, with expectations that she was never comfortable with.
So we get a punk rock soundtrack, with Souxsie and the Banshees, New Order, The Strokes. We get a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Converse shoes on the floor by Antoinette’s feet. And we get Kirsten Dunst, playing Antoinette like the put-upon teenage girl that she is. Marie Antoinette is, essentially, a teen coming-of-age film transplanted into a historical docudrama. Dunst manages to act with her whole body; at one point, Antoinette walks alone down a corridor with all the rumors and demands playing in her head, and you can see the grief and frustration building in a face that otherwise manages to keep perfectly still. It’s a powerful scene, and made me a fan of Dunst, who heretofore I had never paid much notice to.
Compared to the relatively spartan palace Antoinette grew up in, Versailles is ostentatious, its myriad social rules and expectations stifling. “This is ridiculous,” Antoinette gripes. “This is Versailles,” comes the response. Antoinette is constantly buffeted by the pressures around her, from within Versailles and without. She spends most of the film being harangued by creepy adults demanding that she produce an heir, forced to shoulder the blame rather than Louis XVI, who’s more interested in locksmithing than anything else. A frequent theme is the voyeurism of Versailles and the nobility, with Antoinette constantly being stripped, constantly being watched, rarely having a moment to herself, even giving birth in front of an audience. And it’s not hard to draw a line from the cute little farm that Antoinette spends time at to the rustic scenery of then-popular reality show The Simple Life, the one that launched rich heiress Paris Hilton into a vicious, misogynistic kind of fame not unlike what Marie Antoinette experienced. (The farm scene is even shot a little bit like a reality show. Given that the film’s production coincided with the peak of the show’s popularity, and Hilton’s undeserved reputation after the sex tape that she never wanted the world to see helped make her a household name, I’d be willing to bet all that was on Coppola’s mind during filming.) It’s a stark example of how a woman can be stripped of her identity and placed on a pedestal for all to see, merely an object to lust after or hate or both. You think Paris is happy about her “dumb promiscuous blonde” reputation? At least nobody’s accused her of giving unsolicited dietary advice.
Marie Antoinette is not for people who think historical biopics should be docudramas. We’re forever going to be making educated guesses at best when it comes to the past. Better to think of the film as a portrait of a young girl, drawing a direct line between then and now. While it could be argued that the film’s ultimate result is taking a venal, corrupt nobility and turning them into teen romance movie stars, such an argument is missing the point that the Marie Antoinette of this film is a victim, exploited and distrusted by everyone around her. This isn’t a movie about the French Revolution, though it certainly plays a role; it’s a movie about a young girl who never asked to be queen.
And the soundtrack is pretty fire.