This week I took a much-needed break from Woolf’s (at times rather bleak) 1920s London and ventured into a very different imaginative landscape - the gorgeously glittering, candy-coloured and utterly decadent Versailles of Sophia Coppola’s much-maligned 2006 biopic Marie Antoinette. I’d never seen the film before, though I had read Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette upon which the film was loosely based. I also love both of Coppola’s previous films (her debut, The Virgin Suicides, which I remember going to see by myself at my local arthouse cinema at the age of about 16, toting my dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel under my arm like some kind of clutch-bag; and of course, the popular Lost in Translation) so I was intrigued to see what Coppola would make of the iconic story of the ill-fated French Queen.
The film hadn’t exactly ‘wowed’ audiences: Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes, and many reviewers dismissed it as mere shallow, vacuous fluff, characterising it as a sort of lightweight costume drama for the MTV generation. Coppola was widely criticised for her decision to portray Marie Antoinette as “a real girl... just a teenager [who] wanted to stay out late and go to parties”, which critics suggested represented a failure to take seriously the political and historical context of the young queen’s story - the demise of the French monarchy and the subsequent revolution. Broadly speaking, Marie Antoinette was written off as little better than a glorified music video - a few pretty pictures, a funky soundtrack, but no real substance, meaningful content or historical validity.
For me, the music video comparison is probably valid enough - after all, the film is characterised by atmospheric sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a beautifully-shot music video, dialogue is kept to a minimum, the narrative is meandering rather than tightly-plotted, and as so often with Coppola’s work, the soundtrack plays a key role - but to dismiss it as such really misses the fundamental point.
There are a number of issues in play here, but firstly such an interpretation fails to take into account the fact that the “music video” approach is obviously a very deliberate creative choice, reflecting Coppola’s conception of the queen as simply a teenager who liked a good party. The controversial decision to feature new wave and punk on the soundtrack alongside the more conventional orchestral music we might expect from a period piece underlines the sense that this film is not an attempt at historical realism and accuracy, but (as to some extent with The Virgin Suicides which also blends period and contemporary music on its soundtrack) is rather interested in creating a certain sense of timelessness, bringing together fact and fiction to imaginatively re-vision the identity of the central character, who consequently comes to function as a kind of ‘universal’ teenage girl.
In this way, Coppola plays with the idea of history itself as a series of stories that are told and retold, themselves coming to occupy the territory of fiction - the ‘myth’ of Marie Antoinette perhaps as much as any other. Her famous “let them eat cake” remark itself has long been proved apocryphal, but nevertheless seems to endure - Coppola loves playing with this throughout the film, depicting the queen as a compulsive nibbler of fancy pastries and pastel macaroons. In this, she demonstrates that Marie Antoinette has increasingly become a figure of legend, not so dissimilar in many ways to Robin Hood or King Arthur, both themselves figures who existed in historical reality, but who have transformed into semi-fictional characters, whose stories are continually retold and reinvented in new forms to suit the specific needs of new generations, new contexts. Consequently, in this very specific ‘re-telling’ or even ‘reappropriation’ of her story, Marie Antoinette seems to exist outside the conventional boundaries of history in her own playfully anachronistic, imagined world, appearing at one moment in an 18th century gown, the next in goth-inspired make up - at one point we even glimpse a pair of Converse shoes.
For me, it’s precisely this quirky, playful approach to the story that gives the film its distinctive freshness. I also liked the slightly idiosyncratic, sideways view of the political context: whilst its fair to say the film doesn’t explore the historical events in much depth - Coppola’s focus seems to be on the personal rather than the political - it simultaneously avoids offering us any simple answers. Kirsten Dunst’s nuanced portrayal of Marie Antoinette resists depicting her as either a straightforward innocent victim or the spoilt and extravagant stereotype of 18th century propaganda, whilst Jason Schwartzman’s doe-eyed King Louis XVI delicately treads the line between sweetly naive and unappealingly odd. Coppola does not depict Marie Antoinette’s final grisly fate, yet the last shot of the Queen’s ransacked bedroom is surprisingly moving, perhaps not for what we do see, but precisely for what we do not - she allows Marie Antoinette’s myth speak to us in silence.Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, criticises Coppola for precisely this reason: “You'd never guess from this that men's lives—those of the Queen's guards—were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris... Coppola forlornly catalogs only the ruined bric-a-brac. As with the teenaged girls for whom she has such sympathy, her worst imagination of disaster, it would seem, is a messy bedroom." But for me, this image was both powerful and resonant. The bedroom at Versailles seemed throughout the film to be a physical representation of Marie Antoinette’s inner space, and so this final sense of disorder, subtle though it may be, ultimately has more impact than any scene of violence or bloodshed.
Watching the film left me wondering exactly what it was about it that offended so many critics and audiences. Marie Antoinette is certainly historically obtuse - but is that in itself so much of an issue? The film does not prioritise historical accuracy or realism - instead it’s driven by mood, atmosphere, aesthetics, taking unapologetic pleasure in cataloguing the decadence and extravagance of the French court in endless, dreamy shots of exquisite delicacies, magnificent interiors, and of course, clothes - unsurprisingly given her own interests in fashion, Coppola takes particular delight in exploring Marie Antoinette’s role as a fashion icon of her times, with scene after scene featuring new and beautiful shoes and gowns, not to mention increasingly outrageous hairstyles. Yes, it may be totally anachronistic, but in the end, isn’t that part of the point, part of the fun?Perhaps what is really at the bottom of all this is the (to me, slightly bizarre) notion that weighty or worthy 'serious' art is somehow superior to any other. Personally, I don’t understand why something cannot be considered interesting or high quality simply because it is beautiful, affecting, or engaging in some other way - even simply just good fun. True, an entirely vacuous film might be a bit boring, but whilst it is playful and whimsical, perhaps even frivolous, there’s plenty to engage with and think about in a film like Marie Antoinette. The decision to explore surface aesthetics, as Coppola does so adeptly in this film can, after all, be a valid creative choice, and can result in a final piece of work that is challenging and intriguing in its own way. I don’t think critics would be quite so quick to dismiss a book simply because it foregrounds creating a powerful ambiance at the expense of so-called “deep and meaningful” political content, Maybe some would even applaud the courage of the writer in taking an alternative approach - after all, the ability to break rules, explore new angles and experiment with new perspectives is something we look for from artists.
This seems to have turned into quite a long ramble, and I’m not entirely sure what it is I want to say, except perhaps that in the end, I both enjoyed the film in an entirely frivolous way (champagne, fabulous gowns, cute puppies and cakes - erm, yes please) and found it very interesting - it is after all, possible to do both. Whether or not Coppola’s take on history is for you, there’s no doubt she manages to create a vivid sense of her character’s inner life and imagination. And maybe, in the end, in spite of her determination to sidestep the political, (indeed perhaps because of it), in its distinctive and offbeat approach to the topic, I suspect that, far from being just "fluff", Marie Antoinette is secretly a little bit anarchic after all...