The second in an ongoing series on the Cinema of the Teen Girl. Cover image "Marie Antoinette" by Stephanie Monohan.
The girl is fifteen and owns half the world. It is 1770, and Marie-Antoinette is to marry Louis XVI and become the Dauphine of France. She has not yet met her husband, but shows a small portrait of Louis to her ladies-in-waiting. She says his eyes look kind. She comes with a royal retinue from Austria, and it is in Louis’ Palace of Versailles that she will live out the rest of her days. She breathes on the glass of her carriage window, and draws a heart.
Though she is thin and blonde and unable to dress herself, the future of a great colonial dynasty resides in her young body.
Far from the wicked queen of history, this Marie-Antoinette, as Kirsten Dunst embodies her in Sofia Coppola's biopic, is a girl who cannot own even herself. Court ritual enacts itself without mercy upon her person. She stands naked before her attendants at Versailles, waiting for them each to dress her according to rank. A crowd gathers around her wedding bed as a Catholic bishop prays over her and her less-than-virile husband. Barely more than a boy himself, Louis regards Marie with a childlike admiration that immunizes him to her overtures. Their marriage goes unconsummated and barren for years.
But that can’t keep a good material girl down. Soon Marie seizes upon the allowances of her status and makes over her Versailles, transforming it into a playground of delights both delicate and libidinal. Coppola indulges in a shopping montage set to “I Want Candy,” as Marie and her coiffed coterie drape themselves in diamonds and stuff themselves with macarons. Marie couldn’t care less that public opinion has soured on her in distant Paris. She just wants to have fun.
Like her subject, Coppola shows little reverence for convention, and forgoes the stateliness required of a canonical period piece, seeking instead a lived-in experience of time. She invites us to participate in the heightened state of Marie’s cake-eating adolescence via deliberate anachronisms, which slip in and out of the film’s narrative reality. Instead of eighteenth century chamber music, Coppola favors 80s punk and pop, which formed the soundtrack to her own teen years, to score the film, and includes more contemporary sounds as well, like the lonely arrangements of Aphex Twin, or the lo-fi crackle of The Strokes.
The film maintains a sense of play that belies its subject’s famous fate. The actors range from comedy stalwarts like Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson, to senior monarchs Marianne Faithfull and Rip Torn as Marie Therese and Louis XV, to the various offspring of more famous parents--Asia Argento, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, and Mary Nighy, in addition to the director herself. The script doesn’t bother much with period-cinema vernacular, except in rare moments of high drama. The camera drifts through party and outdoor scenes, lending the film a first-person view of Marie, the laughing libertine. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette wears Manolos and Chucks and speaks in an American accent, and the film makes no apologies for her.
Despite the weight of its biographical themes, there is a lightness to Marie Antoinette that cements its status as a minor work. It premiered to boos at Cannes, and is seldom mentioned in the same breath as The Virgin Suicides or Lost in Translation, which Coppola dashed off while still wrestling with the Marie Antoinette script. Critical consensus (with the notable dissent of Roger Ebert) was that Coppola made a glitzy high-concept music video for her own amusement.
Like so many female artists, Sofia Coppola must be used to the dismissal of any intentionality behind her work, but perhaps she doesn’t care. To ignore the weight of her aesthetic frippery is to miss her point. She takes the mundane tragedy of young womanhood as her subject in film after film-- the gradual realization of an unfair world, and the loneliness of it. Marie Antoinette does not burden itself with the great historical sweep of the French revolution, but only the bright, short life of one girl who had access to her every desire but no real agency. Instead of the gallows-bound queen, we remember Marie, who did what she wanted but tried not to let everyone down.
Caroline Fulford is a data librarian, podcaster, and writer based in Brooklyn. She has been known to get emotional on the internet. Listen to The Loose Canon Podcast, her interview show about personal histories of film, here or here.
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