Marie Antoinette Review
Posterity has given Marie Antoinette a raw deal. Ask the average person what they know about her and they'll tell you three things: (1) she was queen of France, (2) upon hearing that the peasants had no bread to eat, she said, "Let them eat cake" and (3) the peasants failed to see the funny side and guillotined her.
Modern historians have treated the queen more kindly. Her excesses, they claim, were exaggerated and it was her husband's foolish financial support of the American Revolution that led to the Royal Family's downfall, not her spending. It's widely believed that she never made the cake remark, that this was malicious gossip spread by her enemies.
Sofia Coppola's new film Marie Antoinette, based on a biography by British historian Antonia Fraser, is also sympathetic to her. It portrays her as a well-meaning Austrian princess sent away abruptly at 14 to an arranged marriage in a foreign court. It argues that she coped as best she could with the bizarre, cloistered life of a dauphine and later a queen and that she spent money on luxuries because she was bored and unhappy.
This is not a biopic however; it's Coppola's impression of what life must have been like for the queen in the Palace of Versailles, a location the film rarely leaves. The script ticks off some of the important events in Marie Antoinette's life but doesn't show much interest in them. The storming of the Bastille is covered by a messenger rushing onscreen to announce that the Bastille has been stormed. Coppola is more concerned with the details of everyday life at court and how this life affected the queen.
This approach will disappoint and probably bore viewers primed by the marketing campaign to expect a funky historical drama along the lines of Dangerous Liaisons meets Moulin Rouge. Coppola can argue fairly that this wasn't what she intended. However, even judged for what it is and what it tries to do, Marie Antoinette is still disappointing. It does an impressive job of recreating Versailles and no doubt there will be Oscars in many of the technical categories (Best Costume Design is a cert) but the movie's recreation of the queen herself is much less convincing.
Sofia Coppola, who wrote as well as directed, has surprisingly little to say about her famous subject. She keeps making the same points over and over again: that Versailles was ridiculously sumptuous, that it was a gilded prison, that its courtiers were gossipy parasites, that Marie Antoinette was subject to absurd rules and cruel rituals.
These points are made effectively early on. There's a poignant scene in which the 14-year-old princess is taken into a specially prepared tent on the Austrian-French border, stripped of all her Austrian clothes and possessions, made to say goodbye to her friends and family, and even forced to give up her beloved pet dog because it's not French. Knowing that this actually happened adds to the sadness.
The first few scenes in Versailles also have the desired effect - the marriage bed is blessed in front of a huge crowd on the couple's wedding night, with the couple in it! - but the film carries on giving us variations of the same scenes, in case we hadn't got the message. Marie Antoinette is made to dress in front of a room full of spectators, she becomes the subject of vicious gossip by her courtiers and subjects, she's forced to give birth publicly.
As played with a sad smile by Kirsten Dunst, Marie Antoinette endures these ordeals passively. She's a martyr. Even after she becomes queen and presumably has some power, she submits and does what's expected of her. In fact history records that the queen stood up for herself. She abolished the public birth ceremony after her first child was born and she replaced the bossy palace courtiers with her own friends.
We don't see any of this, which is odd since it would have contributed to our understanding of Marie Antoinette, made her more sympathetic and given her a personality. People are defined by their actions after all, not by what is done to them by others. The Marie Antoinette presented to us by Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst is a blank, the same good-hearted, mistreated girl in the last scenes as in the first.
The rest of the court don't make much more of an impression. Marie Antoinette's husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) is a rather anachronistic nerd interested only in locks and hunting, while his father, Louis XV (Rip Torn) is a dirty old man. The queen's various friends and ladies in waiting are interchangeable. Viewers with an interest in history will recognise some of them, the ill-fated Princesse de Lamballe (Mary Nighy) for instance, but most people will just see a group of tittering women in wigs and big dresses.
Asia Argento is more colourful as Madame Du Barry, Louis XV's harlot of a mistress. She does however seem an awfully trivial character to command so much screentime while the deaths of two of Marie Antoinette's children one after the other (which devastated her) are barely acknowledged. Ironically, the actor it's easiest to take seriously is Steve Coogan, who plays the Austrian ambassador.
Sofia Coppola's depiction of Marie Antoinette as a helpless victim of circumstance is ultimately no easier to accept than her traditional portrayal as a spoiled bitch who deserved to have her head chopped off. After all, just about everyone in the 18th century was handed their role in life, including the king, the courtiers and the peasants starving in the villages. Marie Antoinette was in a far better position than most to change her lot in life and even if she accepted it, she was still better off than just about anyone else. I'm sure many people watching this film, with its many, drooling close-ups of expensive dresses, shoes, jewellery, furniture and food would quite happily swap Marie Antoinette's ever-so-sad life for their own.