September 28, 2011

Don’t Hate on Coppola’s Antoinette

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When discussing director Sofia Coppola one often cites The Virgin Suicides or Lost in Translation. The brave might even look to Somewhere, Coppola’s most recent and minimalist effort. However, the one we hear least praised is Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s 2006 film about France’s doomed queen.

There are three main complaints:

First, Coppola pays little attention to depicting the historical events of the day, and when she does it is only in a peripheral sense. For example, we see the beginnings of the Revolution, but only from the perspective of an upper-floor balcony at Versailles, where a humbled Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst) gazes down at angry citizens brandishing pitchforks and hurling insults.

This tendency to gloss over historical events has been seen by many as a fetishizing of history — a reduction of history to its surface, material elements. We see the crazy hair, the outmoded costumes and Versailles glimmering in the background (the movie was the first to actually film inside the palace), but we see little else.

And many argue Coppola doesn’t even do fetishization correctly, as she mixes eighteenth-century objects with modern-day ones. In a particularly despised frame, Coppola pans over Marie Antoinette’s shoes, all carelessly thrown on her bedroom floor, and amongst the period pumps we find a pair of (gasp!) Converse high-tops. To add to the anachronisms, the film also features a soundtrack with songs by the likes of Phoenix and Julian Casablancas. In one of my favorite reviews from French newspaper Le Monde, author Jean-Luc Douin fittingly dubs Coppola’s queen “roc(k)coco.”

Second, and in a similar vein to the complaint of historical inaccuracy, some critics think the movie just doesn’t make you angry enough. Far from wanting to join the aforementioned mob screaming at Versailles’ gates, you can almost sympathize with Antoinette. The film does not provoke the expected response.

And finally, many feel that the film is just plain dull.

But I think, in this case, the critics got it completely wrong. Marie Antoinette remains my favorite Coppola film and is my recommendation for this week. I find it to be a visually entrancing film, which, if you understand its aims, is both perfectly executed and also incredibly self-aware.

The focus, I would argue, is not history. It is not an After School Special-esque summary of Marie Antoinette’s reign, complete with moralistic undertones. If that’s what you are hoping for, I would advise you look elsewhere.

The movie is instead based on a biography written by Antonia Fraser that re-examines the figure of Marie Antoinette. More sympathetic than many biographers, Fraser looks at the realities of Antoinette’s life and argues that Antoinette was but an incapable, naïve child when she was married off to Louis XVI. Her work suggests that though Antoinette was guilty to some extent for the crimes committed during her reign, it was more the system’s fault than her own.

Indeed, in Coppola’s film we get just this sense. Kirsten Dunst plays the part of a fragile, overwhelmed teen to a tee. We watch the young frightened girl leave everything behind and arrive at the rigid French court where, from the beginning, she is judged by everyone. And her dopey husband Louis (played by Jason Schwartzman) provides little comfort.

It is no surprise, then, that Antoinette, portrayed from the onset as an object herself, retreats into a world of chiffon and pastries. In a telling scene at the beginning of the film, Antoinette is symbolically handed over from Austria to France. She is first stripped of all her belongings and dressed in exclusively French-made garments. Then she is, quite literally, passed along to her new French relations waiting for her on the other side of the border. In the transaction Dunst, shivering, is handled with little more consideration than the garment she is being shoved into.

If the film fetishizes history a bit, I would say it does so to underscore the complete superficiality and one-dimensionality of the life Antoinette led. And the use of anachronism makes this notion of fetish even more obvious. A contemporary audience may not recognize eighteenth-century style consumption, but I would bet that everyone understands sneakers.

The one-dimensionality of Antoinette’s life, by the way, also accounts for the so-called tediousness of the film. When your main character lives a life of ennui it does not make for big action-filled sequences. The film rolls slowly by — not in a boring way, but in a languidly beautiful one. And in this sense, the soundtrack is spot-on. The indie picks energize and compliment Coppola’s vision. Another director might have made the use of contemporary music feel crass, but Coppola’s choices are so well made that the music feels almost natural. A soundtrack of Mozart might, oddly, feel less organic.

Instead of a historical film, then, the movie should be seen more in relation Coppola’s other works. The isolation and alienation of Antoinette recalls Coppola’s other female-centered films like Lost in Translation or The Virgin Suicides. Marie Antoinette is a continued examination of many of Coppola’s favorite tropes. It is not, I would say, a deep enough psychological examination of Dunst’s character to warrant identification with Antoinette, but it does leave you questioning her role in history.

It is a movie that provokes contemplation, not loathing. And is that such a bad thing?

Original Author: Hannah Stamler