Bird Watching – In Defense of “Marie Antoinette”
It saddens me that the prevalent thought is that Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) was a disappointing follow-up to her career-making Lost in Translation (2003). In box office terms, yes, it very much underperformed. And it didn’t storm the awards season as Translation did. But this is a film that is worth another look, away from the hype of Translation‘s success, separate from the pressure put on Coppola to repeat that performance and the scrutiny she faced over choosing to do an elaborate period piece as her next film. It is a wonderful character piece wrapped in luscious style; well acted; touching deftly on enormous themes; creating a shimmering world that descends into chilling consequences. It’s a film I love to revisit, captivated by how Coppola creates the sinking, naïve opulence of our characters, showing us as little of the age’s reality as they themselves seem to have understood.
From the outset, Coppola sends a message that this will not be a typical historical drama. Like many filmmakers, she wields a soundtrack like a megaphone. Here, she chooses an opening song that immediately broadcasts the stereotype of who Marie Antoinette was: Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It,” a head-bopping tune that begins with the lyrics “The problem of leisure/what to do for pleasure.” Coppola matches this with an absurd tableau of Marie, reclining on a chaise amidst several towering cakes, giant feathers in her hair, a maid fitting her feet with delicate pink shoes. Kirsten Dunst as Marie licks a swipe of frosting from her finger, looks directly into the camera, and smirks with a raised eyebrow, as if to say, “yeah, this is how I roll. What are you going to do about it?” It’s an image that exists outside of the story of the film. The “real” opening image, after the credits (hot pink and black), shows Marie Antoinette, teenager, waking at her family’s palace in Austria. Well before we get a line of dialogue from her, her mother’s voice narrates, explaining how “Antoine” is set to become the queen of France. It’s telling that we do not hear the girl who would be queen discussing this herself. She is not the orchestrator of her story. The first words we hear her speak are instead when she is already in the carriage that takes her away from her old life into a new one. Looking at a miniature portrait of her intended, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), she says simply and brightly that “he has kind eyes.”
Marie Antoinette blows on the window of her carriage and draws a heart on the glass. When rolling to a stop, she asks “are we there yet?” We are meant to understand that this is a teenage girl, and given clues that relate back to what we would expect of such a girl today. One might say that Coppola’s message is less than subtle, but I think it needs to be this way, to get the full effect of what we are about to witness—the girl stripped of everything she has: her friends, her dog, her clothes. She can take nothing with her from Austria onto French soil. As her dress is pulled over her head, a first glimpse of deadened realization crosses her face. In her new clothes, with newly powdered hair, she ages years in minutes.
Now, I’ve written about 500 words on the first eight and a half minutes of the film. It’s true that these opening scenes are precious in setting out the film’s storytelling priorities, but I could continue, scene by scene, explaining why I think the whole thing’s brilliant. The ever-so-slight shaky cam as we first see Versailles, emphasizing Marie’s point of view in a way no other sequence does; the joyful wedding fireworks that smash cut to a scene of attendants standing creepily by the marriage bed, salivating over consummation; the mocking absurdity of Marie having to stand naked before her ladies-in-waiting as she’s instructed on the minutiae of who gets the right of handing her a robe. This fast-forwards me to 25 minutes into the two-hour film. I get carried away in the details in the same way that someone entering Versailles might have done at the time, staring at wallpaper or china. (Certainly the fact that Coppola was able to film at the actual palace of Versailles helped with this.) But it’s the moments I dwell on, not the setting. What others have perceived as being slow-paced, to me is the presentation of a fully realized framework to fall into, gladly.