Original release: May 24th, 2006
Running time: 123 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Antonia Fraser, Sofia Coppola
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne
Sofia Coppola’s post-modern take on the life of Marie Antoinette is best understood through two scenes involving – appropriately enough – cake.
The first comes during the title sequence, when Gang of Four’s anti-consumerist classic ‘Natural’s Not In It’ is interrupted by a shot of Marie stretched out on a lounger, her feet massaged by a servant. She turns to scoop some cake onto her finger and her eye catches the camera as she does. She shrugs, smiles and licks the cake from her digit. ‘Whatever’, she seems to say.
Later in the film, Coppola returns to this image of conspicuous consumption but reveals it to be a lie. When the public tide has turned against Marie and France is in turmoil, we hear the rabble of politicians wildly debating Marie’s most famous contribution to history.
Cutting from a distant shot of Versailles to an obviously fake ‘flashback’, we again see Marie enjoying the comforts of luxury as she soaks in a bathtub, her lips coated in blood-red lipstick. “Let them eat cake,” she says dismissively before normality is restored and the real Marie appears to insist the quote is nonsense.
The tension between historical perception and actual fact is at the heart of Coppola’s film, only her third and perhaps her best. What is history, she asks, and who shapes the way we view important moments and significant figures?
Marie attributes the ‘cake’ quote to “the media” (one of the film’s many allusions to the modern day), but the scurrilous gossip of Versailles has become the respected ‘fact’ of history, indeed the single most defining element of Marie’s life. Is this the stuff history is built on? A slanderous quote? A silly bit of hearsay? A gigantic game of Chinese Whispers?
That’s certainly what Versailles becomes after Marie moves there to enter into a political marriage with Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). A minimalist performance from Kirsten Dunst establishes Marie as a quiet, even shy, young woman eager to do what it takes to please her family and serve her country.
Her willingness though makes her an easy target for vicious gossip. When will she produce an heir? Why isn’t the King attracted to her? How long before the whole thing crumbles? Coppola uses wide, alienating shots to establish the dehumanising effect on Marie as Versailles’ physical dominance looms over her. She’s a tiny cog in a gigantic machine.
Against this backdrop, Marie’s famed excesses – which, despite claims to the contrary, Coppola is not shy of exploring – are played as a desperate (and failed) bid to establish identity. Again using twin scenes and music, Coppola invites us into Marie’s bedroom in the first sequence, as she is told that she can neither wash nor clothe herself after waking up. Instead, she must wait for the highest-ranking noblewoman present to do it for her.
The task is taken on and Marie is stripped, but when a more senior royal appears, she’s left naked and shivering, waiting for the duty to switch hands. “This is ridiculous,” Marie says. “This, Madame, is Versailles,” comes the response.
Vivaldi’s ‘Concerto in G’ is played during this sequence and repeated in similar montages throughout the film’s first act, further establishing the court’s constricting regime. More montages appear as the film enters its second act and Marie makes her bid for independence. In these scenes, the music becomes wilder and more contemporary (Bow Wow Wow’s ‘I Want Candy’), the editing faster and the camerawork more chaotic.
The focus is no longer on Versailles’ halls though, rather extravagant hairdos, luxurious food and copious pairs of bright pink heels. All are shown in unsettling close-up, all are used highlight the shallow materialism Marie has had to embrace to regain her sense of self.
Poor little rich girl? Well, yes actually. The film’s much-criticised allusions to the modern day, which include reference to figures like Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton, are intentionally confrontational. Coppola isn’t just asking us to question history, but also our prejudices against class, wealth, gender, celebrity…everything really. It’s a complete attack on our pre-conceptions that’s deeply rooted in humanism.
We condemn Marie Antoinette just as we do the rich, spoiled celebrities of our own time but aren’t they all just like us: flawed, vulnerable and prone to error? Aren’t they all, once we look beneath the surface, just human?
The great tragedy of Marie Antoinette is that even as she shows that humanity by growing into a loving mother, trusted wife and responsible Queen, the weight of history undermines her.
In one of the film’s closing scenes, the birth and death of her third child are not shown as personal moments of high emotion, but events in history, as we witness the hanging and replacement of a family portrait, one with and one without the third child. Marie’s life is, quite literally, just a painting on a wall, a relic of a history which will state, with typical detachment, that Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was executed. In this haunting biopic, Coppola uses a much more emotive, vital and appropriate word. Marie Antoinette, daughter, sister, wife and mother, was murdered.
Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.
When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.