Notable Festivals: Cannes
The timing of this essay on director Sofia Coppola’s third feature, MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), is curiously coincidental, considering that I first saw the film in college during its theatrical release with my friend, Scott Nye. Nye is now a well-regarded film critic and writer, and just last week he posted his own thoughts on the film. The timing of both these essays is of course a funny coincidence, but perhaps it’s more telling of the lingering impression the film has made upon us. Ten years later, the climactic sequence where the furious rabble threaten to storm Versailles still fills me with the same abject dread I felt in the theater, striking right into the heart of an emotional center that’s not usually moved by stuffy Victorian costume dramas. This power and sense of immediacy, I think, stems from the one of the most contested aspects of Coppola’s vision: her re-contextualization of the past in the pop-cultural parlance of our present. MARIE ANTOINETTE is one of those rare films that challenges the most deeply-held preconceptions about period storytelling, proving that a filmmaker doesn’t have to be a slave to the tiny details if he or she is still able to tap directly into the story’s emotional truth.
As Wikipedia would tell it, Coppola initially wanted to make MARIE ANTOINETTE after the success of her 1999 debut, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. However, her relative inexperience as a filmmaker made for an unwieldy writing experience considering not just the sheer scope of the subject matter, but also all the various interpretations that 200+ years of historians have applied to the personal figure of the last Queen of France. To overcome her writer’s block, Coppola set MARIE ANTOINETTE aside and started writing a small script about a love affair in Tokyo that would ultimately become 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION. The success of that film eventually gave Coppola both the inspiration and the artistic momentum to complete the script for MARIE ANTOINETTE, setting it up at father Francis Ford’s American Zoetrope studios as her third feature. The third film in any given filmography typically finds most directors flexing their muscles and aiming high, and Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE is no different. Armed with the confidence gained from her two previous successes, Coppola set out to tell at once both her most epic and her most intimate story yet, rendered in a stunning blend of candy-coated colors and sumptuous scenery.
One of the most impressive aspects of MARIE ANTOINETTE is that Coppola and her producing partner Ross Katz managed to obtain special permission from the French government to shoot entirely within the hallowed halls of Versailles Palace– a masterful producing coup the likes of which we’re likely never to see again. The gilded seat of the French monarchy hasn’t changed very much since 1768, which gives MARIE ANTOINETTE an unrivaled authenticity and sense of place. The plot chronicles Marie Antoinette’s development from her arrival at Versailles as a fresh-faced Austrian princess betrothed to the young French prince, Louis XVI, to her eventual fall from power as the despised symbol of royal excess on the eve of the French Revolution. In her second collaboration with Coppola, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES’ Kirsten Dunst fully embodies the flirty, fun-loving teenager who would grow up to be a dignified (if misunderstood) Queen. Her nuanced, sympathetic performance reinforces Coppola’s attempts to humanize a historical figure we only know from old oil paintings hung in stuffy museums while drawing a direct line to contemporary socialites like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.
The first act of the film finds Marie Antoinette adjusting to life as a French royal, which apparently involves consuming an endless series of decadent luxuries. She fulfills her initial duties by marrying the meek, effete French prince, Louis XVI. Played brilliantly by Coppola’s cousin, Jason Schwartzman, the young man seems utterly uninterested in his new bride– which understandably complicates her efforts to produce an heir. She ultimately prevails, becoming a beloved figure throughout France for her youthful rebelliousness (a trait that doesn’t quite go away even when she becomes Queen). Unfortunately, the sun is not destined to shine on Louis and Marie Antoinette’s reign for long: the combination of her decadent spending and his unwavering insistence on helping the American Revolution along by sending funds overseas earns them nothing but violent contempt from the French working class. The daily economic hardships suffered by their subjects seem a world away from the gilded halls of Versailles– that is, until the rabble show up on their doorstep to demand not only the end of the French monarchy, but Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s own heads.
The tragic story of France’s last King and Queen is told with the assistance of an inspired supporting cast, each portraying an actual historical figure with a similar postmodern flair. Rip Torn plays King Louis XV as a well-respected (if a little pervy) ruler, while Asia Argento slithers around the palace as his slinky mistress, Contesse du Barry. SNL alum Molly Shannon is well-suited to her character, gossipy noblewoman Aunt Victoire, as is Steve Coogan in his role as Marie-Antoinette’s lifelong counselor, Ambassador Mercy. Jamie Dornan’s performance as the smoldering Count Axel Fersen– with whom Marie-Antoinette initiates a secret love affair– foreshadows his breakout in a similar role in 2015’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. A few other familiar faces stand out, like Danny Huston as Marie-Antoinette’s reassuring older brother, Emperor Joseph II, and a baby-faced Tom Hardy as a stoic soldier named Raumont. And last but not least, no conversation of MARIE ANTOINETTE would be complete without mention of my personal favorite cast member: Mops the pug, whose masterful turn earned him the Palm Dog award for Best Canine Performance at the Cannes Film Festival.
MARIE ANTOINETTE owes a clear debt to the visual style of Terrence Malick, Milos Forman, and Stanley Kubrick, who’s 1975 masterpiece BARRY LYNDON haunts nearly every frame. LOST IN TRANSLATION’s cinematographer Lance Acord returns, shooting once again in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio on 35mm film. As evidenced by his work in LOST IN TRANSLATION, Acord is quite adept at working with soft, natural light– a strength that pays dividends in MARIE ANTOINETTE by faithfully rendering a pre-industrial society. The use of lens flares, especially in the sequences where Marie-Antoinette retreats to her small villa in the country, infuses Coppola’s story with a modern, casual edge that helps bring out her heroine’s interior state. The film’s camerawork leans into the regal flavor of their setting, highlighting Marie-Antoinette’s increasing alienation from the royal court with formal locked-off compositions, steady dolly shots, and slow zooms. Acord’s work is harmoniously complemented by Coppola’s own brother, Roman, who serves as the second unit director in charge of capturing select shots. Coppola even manages to find an opportunity to incorporate her signature shot– mounted on the side of a car, looking in on a character sitting in the backseat. Since there were no cars in 18th century Versailles, Coppola simply swaps in a carriage. It’s a small substitute, but it nonetheless reinforces her attempts to humanize the figure of Marie-Antoinette in the cultural parlance of today.
The use of the real halls and ballrooms of Versailles injects every frame with a palpable sense of history and grandeur, but returning Production Designer KK Barrett ably conveys a postmodern pop edge by providing fabulously ornate costumes, furnishing, and food in searing pastel colors like baby blue, hot pink, and seafoam green. A sense of decadence and luxury pervades every lingering closeup of Marie-Antoinette’s material riches– Coppola even goes so far as to personally enlist legendary fashion designer Manolo Blahnik to provide the Queen’s endless supply of heels (2). Little attention is paid to ensuring a temporal authenticity– in fact, Coppola and Barrett lean heavily into the film’s anachronistic elements, to the point that Marie-Antoinette is even seen wearing a pair of Converse sneakers. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been surprising to also see her donning a pair of Apple earbuds. This, perhaps more than any other aspect of Coppola’s approach, is the most controversial and contested factor in the entire film. Critics fixated on the audacity of including the aforementioned pair of Chucks, or Coppola’s use of 80’s pop, shoegaze and punk tracks on a soundtrack that would traditionally be comprised of baroque classical compositions by Vivaldi (which, admittedly, Coppola does include to great effect). Tracks from well-known New Wave bands like New Order, The Radio Department, and Gang of Four routinely pierce the stuffy bubble of regality that threatens to smother the film, creating a unique energy that many critics simply could not wrap their heads around. In decrying Coppola’s vision by fixating on her decision to include anachronistic elements and music, they unwittingly prove that they miss the point entirely– and not just of the film, but art itself. At the risk of going off on a larger tangent, cinema is an art, and art is about expressing some kind of an emotional truth about the human experience. The world of 18th-century Versailles might seem totally alien to someone living in the 21st, but Coppola’s use of modern touches allows her to transcend the time barrier and give us a direct line of emotional access to her characters’ fundamental humanity. We can see ourselves in Marie-Antoinette’s youthful misadventures, and as such, the film is exceedingly more vibrant and relevant to our time than others of its ilk (even more so now, after Wall Street’s similar decadence led to the 2008 collapse and the rise of the Occupy movement, who resemble the angry French mob in wanting to string up the bankers responsible).
The life story of Marie-Antoinette provides ample opportunity for Coppola to further explore her key thematic fascinations. Like the ill-fated Lisbon sisters in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, Marie-Antoinette has little agency of her own– she’s expected to adhere to a set of behavioral traits and customs that stifles her individuality. She’s a kept woman, only coming into her own when she starts expresses herself and up-ending the court’s antiquated perception of how a Queen should act. The air of mystique that surrounds Coppola’s female protagonists reaches something of an apex in MARIE ANTOINETTE, finding a palpable charge in the eponymous Queen’s transgressive femininity. She remains an elusive figure to those around her– even those as close as her own husband– and it’s precisely that unknowable quality that draws people to her like a magnet; they’re all trying to figure out the mystery of her inner life. Dunst plays Marie-Antoinette with the same kind of emotional detachment that defines most of Coppola’s female protagonists. It’s a detachment rooted in loneliness– by virtue of her Austrian background, she is a stranger in a strange land. She’s eternally set apart from everyone else, exiled into her own interior state. Roger Ebert perhaps said it best in his review: “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 now how to value and understand you”. (3)
Just as much as MARIE ANTOINETTE is an inward-looking film on a historical figure, so too is it an intensely personal film on Coppola’s part. The film’s extreme attention to detail in its costumes (and the narrative purpose thereof) echoes Coppola’s own association with the fashion world, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Her background as a child of privilege and status allows her to sympathize with her heroine’s plight. As such, MARIE ANTOINETTE marks something of a turning point in the artistic character of Coppola’s filmography. Beginning here, we see the director really begin to embrace her background as the daughter of a cinematic titan. Growing up Coppola no doubt meant a childhood of frequent exposure to fine art (and fine wine), but it also meant being born with a pre-established air of pseudo-celebrity. Before she was a filmmaker, she was a globetrotting socialite– her peers were the offspring of other similarly influential and wealthy households. She very easily could have become another Paris Hilton or a Kim Kardashian, but instead she exploits that familiarity with the world of empty celebrity (and our obsession thereof) to give her work an added layer of thoughtfulness and relevance– especially in the context of MARIE ANTOINETTE’s endless pageants of manners, customs, and decadence.
A vision as bold as Coppola’s is bound to beget equally bold reactions, and MARIE ANTOINETTE certainly received its fair share– on both sides of the aisle. Critics famously booed the film after its Cannes premiere, yet it also ran in contention for the festival’s highest honor: the Palm d’Or. Domestic reviews were similarly mixed, with the audiences that made LOST IN TRANSLATION such a runaway success largely staying away; in the end, the film grossed only $60 million over its $40 million budget. $20 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but the bean counters at Columbia Pictures no doubt wrote it off as an underwhelming performance. Still, MARIE ANTOINETTE’s inherent charms did not go unnoticed– many critics responded quite favorably to Coppola’s revisionist take on the French monarchy, placing lavish praise on its Oscar-winning costume designs in particular. MARIE ANTOINETTE was released at the height of the aught’s prestige-picture bubble, shortly before it popped (along with the world economy) in 2008. In the years since, the film seems to have only grown in appreciation– time has made Coppola’s intentions more apparent, leading some critics to come around on their initial distaste for her usage of anachronistic elements and dub it one of the best American works of its decade. To this author in particular, time has also made it apparent that MARIE ANTOINETTE marks Coppola’s emergence as a mature filmmaker (an ironic notion considering the story is about a youthfully immature heroine). Coppola’s pioneering vision remains as divisive as ever, but if you can manage to connect with MARIE ANTOINETTE on her own level, you just might find a beautiful and precious jewel of a film that’s as subversive as it is classic.
MARIE ANTOINETTE is currently available on standard-definition DVD from Columbia Pictures.
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Executive Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola
Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz
Director of Photography: Lance ACord
Production Designer: KK Barrett
2nd Unit Director: Roman Coppola
Edited by: Sarah Flack
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: Ladurée”. Ladurée. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
- Via Wikipedia: “Marie Antoinette”. Chicago Sun-Times.