Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is in such bad taste. It’s perfect. The first time I saw it, I discounted it as a shallow indulgence in style and soft-focus. What a fool I was. To be sure, many people agreed with me. And many, I suppose, still do. But, here’s the thing. Marie Antoinette, love it or hate it, is a masterpiece. It is a vision fully realized. Here are four reasons.
Film is, first and foremost, a sensual experience, not all that different from a sunrise or a night of fireworks. Marie Antoinette contains scenes of both and more besides! We trundle through glimmering forests in lavender carriages. We race across golden green fields, our hands waving free. We feast upon colorful towers of macarons. We thrill to the mysterious invitation of a fan unfurled across rosy cheeks. Coppola has worked with Kirsten Dunst before, in Virgin Suicides, and she would work with her again later, in The Beguiled, but it’s here, in Marie Antoinette, that she may have captured best the beauty and spirit of her muse. Dunst plays the soon-to-be beheaded queen with a mix of naiveté, recklessness, and a fragile, if altogether willful, joy. Coppola frames her in moments sometime rigid and sometimes loose, sometimes formal and sometimes intimate. We see Antoinette with her hair piled high, her waist cinched tight, her décolletage exquisitely décollated, and we see her also in bed, in despair and wonder, in loneliness and anticipation, sometimes buried under blankets and sometimes all bare shoulders and ruddy legs, giggling at the prospect of some unfettered joy. We know what happens to her in the end, and Coppola knows her job here isn’t to remind us of that fact at every turn. Her job is only to remind us that all this beauty, as much as it might be decadent and escapist and rapturous, also serves as a prison, and it is no less beautiful because of that. That it is so beautiful, in fact, only makes it hurt all the more.
There are three moments in this film where Kirsten Dunst breaks the sacred etiquette of film and stares straight at the camera and into the eyes of the viewer. The first time happens right at the start, in an opening scene of Antoinette in her home in Austria. She’s in a chair, in repose, among blues and pinks, cakes and plushed velvet. At one side of the screen, a maid in black-and-white, fits on her mistress a shoe. Dunst licks a bit of frosting from her fingers, and then she catches our eye and gives a slight tilt of her head as if to say, “What are you looking at?”
The second comes in her exchange from Austria to France. She is to be married off to the young Dauphin, Louis, so as to cement the alliance between their two countries. We have arrived at this moment after a long, beautifully dull carriage ride. Antoinette approaches the tent constructed across the border. Once inside, they strip away her dog. And then her rings. Her necklace. Her hat. Her shoes. Her socks. They slip off her dress and her underclothes. It is traditional, she is told, for a bride to leave everything behind. Coppola films this scene from behind, from the point of view of Austria. She cuts next to a shot from the French side. Antoinette walks out of the tent, wearing her new costume, right into the center of the frame. The shot is almost Wes Anderson-esque in its suffocating precision, and so it centers us in Antoinette’s experience of being crushed from all sides into a new shape. This shot should do away with the notion that Coppola prefers soft filters and gauzy ephemerality because it’s all she knows how to do. Here she shows how hard and precise she can be when it appeals to her and here it appeals to her because Antoinette has walked out of her childhood and into an unforgiving adult world in which, above all else, she will be put on display. Dunst stares at us in this moment, dead-eyed and uncertain, as if to say, “Well. Here I am. Is this what you want?” Everything of the film is here in this one shot. It’s magnificent.
The third moment occurs after the birth of a child not belonging to Marie Antoinette. We have seen, at this point, many examples of Louis’ indifferent, if not simply ineffectual, affections. And we have seen Antoinette greeted, each morning, by the crowd of onlookers that gather at the foot of her bed. We have heard the whispers that follow her as to her failure to produce an heir. We have read the letters from her mother lamenting the same. And we have just seen Dunst act the hell out of a scene in which she allows only her joy, and none of her sadness, to greet the happy couple and their new baby. But now we are alone with her in her bedroom, and we watch her crumple against the door and proceed to cry. It is a private moment, for a woman allowed no privacy. But, of course, we are there, too. And she finds our gaze and holds it. There is no sarcasm here. No condescension. There is something less and more. There is a woman and she is looking at us. Coppola wants us to be unsettled. And she wants us to never forget that Antoinette, while so often trapped in the gazes of others, is never without her own gaze.
Coppola scores this film, for the most part, with a procession of 80s bands like The Cure, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In a film where so much care and expense has been paid in order to achieve such a period-perfect look—all those hats! every scene shot on location in France, in Versaille, or Chantilly, and so on—why deign to wake us from this dream? Why take us out of the moment? Why shatter the verisimilitude? I think because, as in those moments when Dunst stares out at us, the inclusion of dated pop electrifies these proceedings. They provide a shock of life, of rules broken, for good or ill. And, so, their presence helps ensure that the spirit of Antoinette shines out among the aforementioned hats and palatial beauties. Whatever else she is, or was, Antoinette is a girl whose heart, however excessive in its desire and however chained by its place in history, is her own. As those meta moments of wall breaking remind us that her gaze is her own, the soundtrack reminds us that her emotions are her own, as well.
As well, there is, I think, the fact that Coppola wants us to imagine Antoinette, herself, as a kind of 1980s pop star, and to imagine the time of her reign in France, as a gilded mirror held up to that decade, what with all its excess of greed and lust and the inevitable crash to come. And so we have this Antoinette caught in the prison of her own privilege. She is always on display. She is always the center of gossip. She is beloved and hated as the emblem of a regime she had no part in building. She is Madonna. Not the holy mother, but the wicked pop star. She is a symbol, for some, of all that’s wrong in society, and for others, for all that’s beautiful and empowering. In one way or another all of Coppola’s films deal with women trapped in the gaze of others, who nonetheless posses a gaze and beauty all their own. So it is here, too. Antoinette is never wicked nor role model. She is, for better and worse, only herself.
In The Beguiled, as here, we have a group of people seemingly cut off, and protected, from history. In one, a seminary of girls hidden by the Virginia woods from The Civil War. In the other, a queen and her court sheltered away in palaces and retreats from the mob calling for their heads. In both, the narrative turns on how the world that shelters them also imprisons them, and in some cases, dooms them. Marie Antoinette, in this film, only visits Paris but once. She is a palace girl. She is a diva out of necessity. What else can she do? She could speak out, of course. She could empathize with the mob. But who has ever empathized with her? Who has ever taught her by example? None. How could she look at a mob of people and not just see another mass of humanity, like all the others, looking at her and seeing whatever they want to see? Another set of eyes, for her, only means another set of demands. Some may accuse Coppola, I think, of trying to have her cake and eat it, too, calling on us to care for a woman of privilege, and to bask with her in the decadent and destructive nature of the beauty of her world, while only cursorily calling it all into question. But I don’t think so. Coppola doesn’t let Antoinette off the hook. Nor does she let us off the hook. She simply stages the hook in the wings. She trusts that we can see it for ourselves, even if we never see it. She trusts that, at the end, as the carriage takes Antoinette to her fate, we see what we must. A girl, with her face against a window, watching the world fall away. “Admiring the view?” her husband asks. “No,” she says. “I’m just saying goodbye.”
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