glistening. Punk staple “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four frolics in the background.
This is not an image we expect to stumble on in the confines of an 18th-century period piece. So many characters (along with the actors who play them) residing within the genre seem to understand that they’re living in the 1700s, hyperaware that the cinematic category generally comes with emotional understatement. When we see the queen, whom we’d normally perceive to be mannered and pompous, in repose and listening to music with which your hip aunt grew up, it’s a shock to our system. This famous woman, so long a character and not a living, breathing individual, finally seems human.
Because the film hosting her, 2006’s Marie Antoinette, couldn’t care less about historical accuracy, though, critics and audiences alike have failed to understand what exactly its writer and director, Sofia Coppola, desires to achieve. They're too caught up in its artistic risks and its overarching obsession with glamour and style.
The most little-minded of a consumer might come to believe that Coppola uses the movie as not much more than an excuse to use nearly $50 million to make a moving Vogue spread. “If you really look at what this movie is saying,” Mick LaSelle of The San Francisco Gate said in 2006. “You’ll find something bordering on ridiculous: Boiled down to essentials, Marie Antoinette is an extended brief extolling the all-embracing exuberance and sterling humanity of rich girls who like to shop.”
One might see why LaSelle might come to such a conclusion. Indeed, Marie Antoinette is partially a meditation on the dangers of hedonism. Coppola relishes the opportunity to bring cinematic luxuriation to the life of Antoinette: Everything, from the ballgowns to the nearly surrealistically-designed dinner plates, are fashioned with such excess they hardly seem to exist within our universe. Materialism was an important detail in Antoinette’s life, so why downplay it? But while visual patina, undeniably thunderous, takes immense priority in the feature, it is not what the film is strictly about.
Marie Antoinette is about what it’s like to be a woman forever commodified, always used as an object or a weapon but never understood. We live in a society that should understand this: So many members of the female population are taught to put their looks above all else, that they’re going to have to work more to get to the same place that a man might. For Antoinette, the underestimation is worse. “I think she’s delightful,” one character remarks. “She looks like a little piece of cake!” She’s never gazed at with empathetic eyes.
One could overstate Antoinette’s standing as a poor little rich girl and try to avoid sympathy at all costs. But why not be sympathetic? Antoinette was born into her situation. She lived a life she perceived to be normal, one in which no one ever cared about what she thought or what she felt all the while consistently being given everything she could ever want.
With Marie Antoinette, Coppola aims to deconstruct her subject's legend. To try to understand what it was like to be taught that you’re nothing more than a product just a year after you step in your teenage shoes.
The film begins in 1770, finding Antoinette, the youngest of her sisters, being sent to France to be married to the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, looking like a glob of dough dressed like an oaf in a Rococo painting). Only 14, the archduchess Antoinette perhaps does not understand the magnitude of what’s happening to her, clutching her pet pug and gossiping with her best girlfriends as they sit through the long carriage ride from Austria to France. But the moment she’s introduced to those she’ll be spending the rest of her life with, stripped of her friends, her puppy, and her clothes, she quickly understands that her childhood has all but decomposed. From here, she will become the cement holding together the fragile alliance between two countries. She’s terrified.
Antoinette is then taken to the grandiose Palace of Versailles, where she meets her soon-to-be husband and his father, Louis XV (Rip Torn). Though she’s waited on hand and foot, her every need met with the snap of a French-tipped finger, the pressure is immense, all eyes unendingly, and cruelly, on her It doesn’t help that by the time she and Louis XVI have finally been married, the boy refuses to sleep with her. Her mother sends vicious letters damning her inability to excite her husband. The crowds on the grounds whisper about Antoinette being a disappointment. “She looks like a child!” a woman cackles at one point, as if delivering a sick burn. But is that a sick burn? She is a child. No one remembers that, though: All expect her to look beautiful and produce an heir. Do anything that deviates from that and she’s a basket case.
The film continues all the way until her French Revolution-hosted death in 1793, watching as she finally does have children, as extravagance becomes publicly synonymous with her name, as she partakes in infidelity (with the Jamie Dornan-portrayed Axel Von Fursen), as she loses it all to a government and populace who decide she must be beheaded at the height of her influence.
Through it all, we feel sorry for Antoinette. She cannot be faulted even for her decadence, especially because she never know that her overindulgences had severe repercussions. This is a woman who never learned what it was like to really be valued, who had her childhood snatched away from her, and who was ultimately punished for doing what she thought she was supposed to do. Sure much of the public would like to think of her unambiguously as a selfish shopaholic who ever heard the word “no.” But she also never saw a world outside of the luscious one she lived in in Versailles.
Not a stylistic choice Coppola makes in Marie Antoinette isn’t wholly mapped-out. Predominantly using 1980s New Wave for the film’s soundtrack (I love how the attendees of a stuffy ball dance to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden”), the move is not a thoughtless artistic decision but rather a maneuver to emphasize how young Antoinette was, and how out of place she was among the dignified royals surrounding her. The various backgrounds of the actors playing these characters (Torn doesn’t drop his Texan accent nor his gruff exterior as Louis XV, and the Italian Asia Argento is a shock of black and moody reds and blues to the Harajuku pastels as Madame du Barry, for instance) is not sloppy casting but rather a way to underline how much this affluent world is a zoo of egos and ambitions. The use of complexly designed foods that go unconsumed represents the thoughtless waste of the dwellers of Versailles. The going back and forth between refined and handheld photography notes that part of Antoinette’s existence is made of elegance and glamour, but another is comprised of rocky emotion and the overreaching confusions that come with being a young woman.
Coppola does not aim to make a historical drama. Marie Antoinette is, rather, a flowery documentation, or at least an attempt at better understanding, of what it was like to be the eponymous woman. Some have criticized the filmmaker for sidestepping the struggles faced by the outside world during her reign, and for taking liberties with what actually happened during the period. But consider that Antoinette never saw her crumbling France, and that much more interesting than a history lesson is trying to transform an icon into someone three-dimensional. Dunst, convincing as a 14-year-old and finally a 37-year-old, as a doe-eyed youth to a weary woman, is sublime. From its performative luminosity to its stylistic boldness, Marie Antoinette is among the best of period pieces: it winningly subverts genre tropes and becomes a thoroughly sensorial experience. A
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
he first time we see 24-year-old Kirsten Dunst playing dress-up as France’s last reigning queen, Marie Antoinette, she's blissful. Dressed in a white ball gown complete with a loud feather headpiece, she’s sprawled out on a cerulean-blue armchair. A servant gives her a pedicure, unsure how she can make this pampered princess look any more regal. A smattering of cakes and pastries, all technicolor pinks and scarlets, surround her, untouched and