Monday, April 1, 2013


Truth be told - THIS was one of the three films I've always had in mind when I started the misunderstood masterpiece series (Trouble Every Day & Solaris being the other two). After revisiting rule breaking/time-period bending works like Swoon (a film set in the 1920's yet features modern appliances), Walker (an overall awful movie but still strangely relevant) & Jubilee (a film that I'm convinced directly inspired Sofia Coppola's third feature) I gave Marie Antoinette a 2nd chance and came to the conclusion that it’s not the disaster I once thought it was. But for some reason I could never get past a few sentences when writing about it. 
So I gave Leanne Kubicz the task of writing about Sofia Coppola's flawed masterpiece here on PINNLAND EMPIRE.


Sophia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette, about the most famous Queen of France has enchanted and conversely frustrated audiences due to the eponymous character’s portrayal and her misunderstood history. Many viewers perceive this film to be a flimsy trifle, due to the aesthetic opulence and caressing light with which Coppola aims to humanize this oft maligned woman. Yet one should consider that this is Coppola’s second film adapted from text, therefore she is following the thesis which the author laid out. The biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001) by Antonia Fraser is a hefty book which offers one of the most accurate descriptions of the monarch’s life and the political environment that doomed her. Though the audience is not required to read the source text before viewing the film, Coppola assumes that the audience will have a sufficient prior knowledge of the history of Marie Antoinette, and this may be why many are left unimpressed by the airy treatment that follows.

Marie Antoinette is another Coppola film in which place weighs heavily on the narrative. The four feature films which Coppola has directed integrate a location as a main character: the Lisbon house in The Virgin Suicides is a malignant force of suffocation, the Park Hyatt Hotel Tokyo from Lost in Translation serves to shield and mollify the guests from their real desires, the Chateau Marmont from Somewhere offers easy leisure at the expense of a truly lived life. The Palace of Versailles in Marie Antoinette is the ultimate place as character, as it represents French cultural domination and the crushing force of that society upon the young monarch.
The Palace of Versailles: We Live in Public – 18th Century version
Much has been made by critics of the anachronisms present in the film; often times the inclusion of two pairs of modern shoes in the “I Want Candy” montage. Manolo Blahnik and Converse shoes did not exist at that time obviously, but is that an adequate reason to discount the rest of the affair? Strict historical accuracy in a biographical film is not requisite. The cast alone blows the idea of historical accuracy out the window. Marianne Faithful as Empress Maria Theresa alone should have irked the dissenting critics, yet no mention of the fact that the Empress did not have a British accent. The same could be said of the inclusion of a good deal of the cast. British and American accents mingle freely; the only true French accent or French words spoken are by the young girl who portrays Madame Royale. The ages of the actors are also not congruent to their historical counterparts. Kirsten Dunst was 24 years old during filming and plays a role spanning from the ages of 14 to 37. Does she look like a young teenager? Not quite, and neither does Jason Schwartzman playing a teen King while in his mid-twenties. Such is the suspension of reality one has to make while viewing a period piece, as has been done with previous Marie Antoinette bio-pics. Think about Norma Shearer in the 1938 film of the same name; she’s glamorous and regal, but by no means teenage in appearance.
Eek! Sneakers!!
One aspect of the film that is as accurate as can be, yet did not seem to satisfy the majority of critics, is the set. Filming at the Palace of Versailles is about as authentic as a director can get when portraying the life of Marie Antoinette. The magnificent size of the palace and its grounds envelop Marie and the rest of the royals in an alternate reality. The strict rituals that Marie must learn are a reflection of this imposing structure. Living amongst such opulence and curious conventions skews how the inhabitants conduct themselves, yet act as if their lifestyle is entirely normal. For example, near to the end of the film, after Marie and Louis have sent their entourage away forever to safety from the looming mob, a rather peculiar event takes place the next morning. Louis is seen hunting for pleasure that dawn, despite the fact that the majority of his family and friends are in mortal peril. He does not even understand that he is in the same danger, because he cannot. His cloistered life has lead him to feel he is always protected, which illustrates what a fool palace life has made him.

The foolishness of Louis XVI is subtly but glaringly apparent in this film. History has heaped a good deal of blame on Marie Antoinette for her apparent transgressions as Queen, but history is incorrect. The Queen of France never had any political power; her job was to produce children and “look the part” by outfitting herself in rich fabrics and jewels. Louis XVI was the monarch with actual political powers which he entirely neglected due to his disinterest in the position of king. A key scene which illustrates this point occurs when Louis XVI is speaking to his advisors about possibly funding the American patriots. Louis thinks supporting revolutionaries would give the wrong idea to the French people about what he sees as the rightful position of monarchy. His advisors quickly rebuff his protest and explain that funding the Americans will hurt England, which is the ultimate goal. Louis easily acquiesces to their suggestions and then picks up a rolled map, holds it to his eye and pretends it is a telescope; not exactly kingly or adult behavior. The flippancy which Marie displays when Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan) tries to have her read and discuss a political matter about Austria is understandable in comparison. She was only semi- literate and due to having no real political influence, why bother with taking the time out? Louis XVI on the other hand, was better educated and had real powers which he did not utilize; hunting and tinkering with locks was much more important to him than the well-being of his country. Unfortunately, history has blamed a woman for grievous ineptitude when in actuality it was her husband who was beyond remiss. In the end both their heads were chopped off, but the symbol of selfishness has been borne by Marie Antoinette throughout history and not Louis XVI, who should be the symbol of obliviousness instead.

The continued celebrity status of Marie Antoinette through centuries can be attributed to her economic waste precipitating a revolution, but also her fashionable attire. Coppola utilizes the clothing of Marie to implicitly reflect her emotions. Though the costumes are not exact replicas (most of the Queen’s clothing was destroyed during the Reign of Terror; only a few tattered pieces remaining) they are accurate enough to the time period to have won a Costume Design Oscar. When we first meet fourteen year old Marie Antoine in Austria she is wearing a light blue dress, which is formal but age-appropriate; her long hair tied with a simple velvet ribbon. She is free of makeup, other than a youthful flush, which will soon change. The ease of Austrian court dress and custom are juxtaposed radically with what she encounters when transported to France for her marriage. Gone is subtlety, replaced with ornate, stiff French clothes that will define the person that young Marie Antoine becomes.

The stages of Marie’s turbulent life are mirrored in her sartorial and hairdressing choices throughout the film. When she is a fledgling to life at Versailles she wears French dress, but in light pastel colors. As her position becomes shaky (due to being both an Austrian foreigner to the French court and her inability to become pregnant) the colors of her clothes become louder. One outfit is of hot pink fabric, accented with small white feathers. This dress suggests that she is blushing wildly from the embarrassment of an unconsummated marriage and the shame of not being able to fulfill her duties. The pressure put upon Marie to both produce an heir and to “be French” cause her to go against her nature and capitulate to the demands of her family and others at court. Though she finds the idea of speaking to her Grandfather-in-law, King Louis XV’s (Rip Torn) gaudy mistress Madame du Barry (Asia Argento) morally abhorrent, she finally cedes to the myriad demands. When she speaks her few required words to Madame du Barry, she is clothed in black. Not mourning black, but rich black velvet with ermine trim, which feels as if she is almost wearing a costume. Her innocence to the scheming nature and rigid rules of the court has been weakened, so she wears black to thrown her inner-anger outward.
“There are a lot of people at Versailles today.” Are you not satisfied?
As Marie’s sexless marriage continues and her sister and brother-in-law have a child before her, her outlandish stylings ramp up considerably. She is a teenager who is pretty and jovial, yet cannot get her husband into bed. From her perspective, if he is not interested and everyone in her family and at court continually disapproves of her behavior, she may as well do as she pleases. Time to shop, eat, drink and gamble to forget the cold bed she returns to every night. Due to the Queenly duty of looking sophisticated and fashionable, she throws her energy into that aspect fully. Her hair becomes higher and higher, her clothes more ornate and her parties and friends more lavish. Louis allows Marie her indulgences because he is weak-willed and in the back of his head he knows her reactions are due to his sexual dysfunction.
Cheers to Léonard, the Gravity-Defying Hairdresser
Marie’s approach to her appearance evolves when her marriage is finally consummated. Awkwardly enough, Marie’s brother, Emperor Joseph II (Danny Huston) visits Versailles and has a conversation with his brother-in-law about marriage and sex. He couches his conversation about sex in terms about locks and keys, which is one of the few things which Louis understands well. Through Joseph’s allusions to oiling locks (wink, wink), Louis finally has the gumption and knowledge to accomplish the “great work”. At last, Marie is pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl, which fulfills her requirement as Queen.
With Marie’s new motherhood and active sexual life, she softens her style. Louis presents Marie with her own home, the Petite Trianon, as a refuge away from strict court rules. The chateau is where she can live her own way and can wear less elaborate garb. She commissions “more natural” clothes, with less restrictive bodices and panniers, made of flowing muslin and silk fabrics. She also takes a lover during this time, the handsome Swede Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan), who awakens her lust and allows her to feel passion and longing. She longed for relations with her husband, but with Fersen, she can play and enjoy the lighter side of sex. For a woman who seemingly had everything a love affair helped her to escape the binds of her station, if only for a short while.

As the Queen ages and the French people start to revolt, her attire becomes subdued and deeper. The death of her mother and the passing of her youngest daughter sends her into mourning taffeta. Her face starts to show the worry of the volatile political climate, from which she has no path to safety. The Queen tires to placate the angry mob, which reach the palace walls by bowing to them from the palace balcony, to no avail. She knows the end of her sheltered life is over and strives to keep a noble manner through the crisis.

The end result of the film is a lush and drowsy portrait which endeavors to extricate a misinterpreted woman from the legends of the past. One may not feel particularly compassionate towards a woman who was a queen and lived in great luxury. The oppression and poverty of the French people due to the unwise decisions of the government is not to be forgotten. The case for empathy for Marie Antoinette is realizing she had no choice in the matters of her life. There was no escape from her duties due to her position and gender; she was born to one of the most famous monarchs of all time and her path was set from that point onwards. She had an arranged marriage as a teen, was transferred into an alien environment for the political gain of Austria and France and had to endure years of humiliation for events which were not of her making. She was ultimately executed, which the film completely excises, for living a life she had no true control over. The exclusion of the trials and guillotines befits the tone of the film. Marie says a bittersweet goodbye to Versailles as the family travels to an uncertain future. We are left with a shot of her bedroom torn to shreds; the image suffices to capture the horrors to follow not only for Marie Antoinette but for all of France.


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