Bird Watching – In Defense of “Marie Antoinette”
Coppola tells Marie Antoinette’s life in a series of set pieces. What’s lovely, and twisted, and deep, is that anything at all could be cause enough for a set piece, in the life of this royalty. An extravagant ball at the beginning of the second act of the film calls for the same kind of attention as a quiet countryside moment with a child at the beginning of the third act, because it is Marie’s story, and whatever is most important to her is most important to the film, at any given moment. I ache with her as Louis ignores her, dealing with his own issues, and as she sinks into despair as her sister has a baby, but she has yet to produce a dauphin—the one thing she can do to prove her worth as a human. I understand her urge to drown her sorrows in parties and extravagance, all the while knowing, off-screen, outside the palace grounds, what reality she ignores. She is like an impending victim in a horror film. I try a dozen times to tell her to pay attention and to remember that she is not invincible, to heed the too-tepid advice of her ambassador, as he nudges her, stupidly gently, toward understanding the affairs of her adopted country. She will never listen. She has not been given the tools to understand.
Coppola in her writing and direction and Dunst in her acting (I am a Kirsten Dunst fan, and will never understand the waves of dislike for her) create a character I want to party with and protect at the same time. She’s also surrounded by other characters who are less central but no less electric, such as Rose Byrne’s Duchesse de Polignac, whose laughter echoes across the background of so many scenes, offering Marie Antoinette rare moments of falling out of immediate sight. I am particularly fond of an outdoor dinner party scene, where multiple characters talk over and under one another. The duchess’s voice always overcomes them all. The guests play a game, with everyone trying to blindly guess a character or historical figure they’ve been assigned. The conversations are heady and layered and hard to follow in the same way they might be if we’d all been sitting at the table, drinking too much wine. Once again, we are in Marie’s shoes. The buzz and hum focuses on her connection with a young soldier at the table. As much affection as she has for her husband, with his sexual problems but sweet disposition, she has never felt desired, as she does with this man. The films cuts to a scene of their mutual seduction within her chambers. I am happy for her. She deserves this moment. It will not last.
As we know, things end tragically for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. These film versions are victims of their own ignorance, as is their whole country. I don’t know if the real queen would have had the influence she needed to change things if she had really tried. I do know that she lived in a deeply flawed system that was not her invention, but all she had ever known. As the queen refuses to leave her husband’s side even while warned that the revolt approaches the palace, it’s at first not clear whether she still believes everything will be okay. When they are finally taken away, she again stares out the window of a carriage. Louis asks her if she’s admiring her lime avenue. “I’m saying good-bye,” she answers, now fully understanding. We don’t need to see what happens next; the film closes with a shot of the couple’s pillaged bedroom.
This is a film I love more every time I watch it. Dunst and Schwartzman are fantastic; I love how they portray the affection Louis and Marie seem to have for each other even through all their troubles, and the knowing way they look at each other. The supporting cast offers a delight around every corner: Steve Coogan, Judy Davis, Rip Torn. (When your movie’s two-thirds over and then Danny Huston shows up, that’s when you’ve had a casting heyday.) I love the way the film takes us through this story—the decadence and dread swirled together; the way we bask in gorgeous detail but always recognize how senseless it is; the contemporary soundtrack offering the audience signals we would not get from 18th century selections, letting us in instead of lecturing us. There’s nothing at all I would change about this movie. I hope it comes to be appreciated in the way I think it deserves.