If you ask anyone what they know about Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, most will quote “Let them eat cake”. As a response to the starving poor of the country she reigns over, it’s the clearest expression of either privileged ignorance or a facetious disregard of the lower classes. It’s worth noting then, that her most famous quote wasn’t said by her at all. The phrase originally appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Confessions, where he speaks of a “great princess” who made the remark. Whether or not it really happened, the writing date precedes Marie Antoinette’s arrival in France. In fact, she was nine years old in a different country. Regardless, it’s what she continues to be remembered for. The Queen became increasingly unpopular leading up to the French Revolution, and her extravagant spending lead her to be called “Madame Déficit.” She was further maligned, partly for her gender and Austrian birth, ultimately becoming a symbol of excess and an callous monarchy. I suppose it may be fitting, then, that Sofia Coppola’s 2006 biopic Marie Antoinette is also misunderstood, and as far as I’m concerned, one of the most underrated films of this century.
It took me until early this year to finally watch the movie, because I expected a dud – and a bad movie is always harder to watch when it comes from a talented artist like Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation is my favourite film). The two things I had heard was that the movie had a willful disregard of any historical accuracy and featured so much modern music it came across more like an excuse for a two-hour music video then a film. The film had a fairly positive reaction from the French press, and a mixed one everywhere else – with most of the criticism focusing on those two points.
The film has a brilliant soundtrack that ranges from delicate piano to New Wave and Post-Punk. The most iconic scene is likely the montage of the Queen feasting on luxurious clothing, shoes, jewelry, and food with her friends, set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” If you’re expecting a biopic that delves into the politics and specific social and cultural context in which she lived, you will be disappointed. If you were expecting a Sofia Coppola film, you’d find it unfolds in exactly the way it should. It’s a personal take on events that are rarely presented from a human perspective – usually being clinical and “correct”. Coppola has stated in various interviews that she was interested in showing “the real human being behind the myths”; the film “not a lesson of history -It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” It has far more in common with Miloš Forman’s masterpiece Amadeus than it does with the less emotive (though nevertheless great) Lincoln.
The soundtrack works so well that it’s notable when it doesn’t feel right – the line for me being the inclusion of The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened?.” And aside from a stylistic choice, the use of modern music has a character function. So much of her spirit, youthful rebelliousness, and quiet melancholy is expressed through the music. It’s a way of telling a recognisable story of a teenage girl in a world that we will never truly know. Seeing them drunkenly arrive home in a carriage, lounge around with a hangover, share a pipe, and gossip in hallways, are all familiar images transplanted. In the end it helps me, someone with a general dislike of period dramas, to find a way to connect with something so otherwise distant.
Fogging up the window of her carriage with her breath and drawing a heart in the condensation is not a moment for a Queen, but any young girl on a long journey. The focus on scenes such as this, while the political climate of France is only hinted at, is an unusual choice – but I believe the right one. The spectre of her eventual trial and execution looms over the parts we do see, adding a palpable melancholy to every scene.
The film begins with ‘Natural’s Not In It’ by Gang of Four – Kirsten Dunst is reclined, a servant at her feet, lazily picking at a cake to her left. She looks towards the camera and smiles. The title hits the screen, reminiscent of the Sex Pistols’ own ransom note font. It’s a decisive statement, and one that is complicated by the following scene of her beginnings, leaving Vienna for the Palace of Versailles. She has to say goodbye to her dog, her friends, her home, and is stripped of all her clothes on the threshold of her new life. These are two very different ideas of Marie Antoinette being shown to us alongside one another – the girl and the icon, one of vulnerability and one of privilege. Right from the start we are asked whether we can reconcile these two women, and are challenged to sympathise with the woman who had everything. Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to champion the film (his review is a must-read), and as always he articulated it best:
“This is Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you”
Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI when she was only 14 years old. She became Queen at 19. Seen from this angle, the director’s choice to frame the narrative as a coming-of-age story is appropriate, and allows her to get in touch with humanity that plenty of historical movies fail to. There are rivalries, clashes with authority; the young generation sneaking out to go to parties and staying up until the early hours of the morning.
The coming-of-age genre is full to the brim with angst-ridden teenage boys, tales of fraught male friendships and the girls they pine for. So it’s with a greater sense of elation that I found Marie Antoinette to be my favourite expression of the what it’s like to be a teenage girl, even if it is set against the backdrop of a luxury most of us will never know.
Dunst embodies the fun, the frustration, confusion and loneliness of that time with a performance that strikes a delicate balance between subtlety and the emotionally raw. She gives depth and applies understanding to an imagined version of Antoinette, seeing a complicated world through her particular point of view. The film works because its focus and tone comes from her character. We are not living out the pages of a history book, but seeing the world through Marie’s eyes. It feels as if the world we are occupying is the present, rather than a reconstruction of a vague past that is seen but not felt.
With so much to talk about in terms of historical representation, style, music and theme, it’s easy to skip over the more obvious positives. The production design is masterful, and the cinematography is stellar – both areas helped by the fact that the film was given unprecedented access to the Palace of Versailles. The film is almost worth watching for that alone. It is also worth mentioning that it is Coppola’s funniest film, with a playfulness that often verges on the comedic stylings of Wes Anderson. The whole cast are marvelous – from the likes of Steve Coogan, Asia Argento and Danny Huston, to Jason Schwartzman’s quietly hilarious timid King. Rose Bryne also turns up in a small role, and almost steals the show by being so funny. It’s undeniable that the director knows exactly how to use each actor, what their strengths and transferable talents are.
There is no real argument or particular interest in Antoinette’s innocence here, but rather an attempt to reclaim the spirit of a young girl forced to have symbolic power. In many ways it is an early precursor to the celebrity culture that Coppola explored in Somewhere and The Bling Ring. As a woman, the people only wanted to think of her as the whore or the Madonna, and as a celebrity she must either be a hero to the people or a villain – never a flawed person with agency. It’s easy to read these same things into how people interact with those they admire over Twitter today, and the scrutiny we put public figures under. If anything, the argument Coppola makes is for empathy – for those we know and those we don’t.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures