Marie Antoinette (2006)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer (WGA): Sofia Coppola (written by)
Tagline: Let Them Eat Cake
Plot Outline: The retelling of France’s iconic but ill-fated queen, Marie Antoinette. From her betrothal and marriage to Louis XVI at 15 to her reign as queen at 19 and to the end of her reign as queen and ultimately the fall of Versailles. more
Plot Keywords: Childbirth / Birth / Fireworks / Costume Drama / 1700s more
Awards: Won Oscar. Another 6 wins & 9 nominations more
Today the general view among historians is that Louis XVI was conscientious and well-meaning, although shy and awkward and not endowed with any great force of intellect or personality, and that Marie Antoinette, although frivolous and extravagant, was far from being the monster of popular legend. Indeed, she had some positive qualities- she was, for example, a loyal friend and a devoted mother to her children. That is precisely the picture of the Royal couple which the film portrays.
The film starts with the marriage of the fourteen year old princess to the French Dauphin as part of a diplomatic initiative to cement the alliance between France and Austria. It then follows her life at Versailles- her frustration with Court protocol, her quarrels with Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry, the accession of her husband as King upon the death of his grandfather, her struggle to produce an heir and the eventual birth of her children. The film ends with the outbreak of the French Revolution, but does not depict the events leading up to Antoinette’s death on the guillotine. (When the Royal couple drive off in a coach at the end of the film they are not, as some reviewers have assumed, going to their deaths- they are being taken to Paris where it is hoped they will reign as constitutional monarchs). The one controversial element is the assertion- not supported by all historians- that she had an adulterous affair with the Swedish Count Fersen.
Had the Revolution never happened, the French would today doubtlessly regard Marie Antoinette in much the same way as the British regard her contemporary Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – that is to say for most of the time they would not think of her at all, and when they did it would be as a name from a half-remembered history lesson, the consort of one of their country’s duller kings. Now, with the actual course of history, unbroken interest ist turned towards Marie Antoinette as the Queen who lost her life at the hands of the revolutionaries, and any biography of her, filmed or otherwise, is incomplete if it does not attempt to analyse why the Revolution broke out or why a section of the French population had come to detest their Royal family to such an extent that they were prepared to acquiesce in their execution. This is somewhat missing in the movie. There are occasional references to food shortages, or to people’s discontent at Royal extravagance and at involvement in the War of American Independence (highly unpopular in France), but these are never fully integrated into the story. The only time we see the ordinary people it is as an angry mob outside the gates of Versailles.
It appears to me, that Sofia Coppola rather wants to tell a story of Marie Antoinette as the Princess Diana of the eighteenth century. Like Diana, Coppola’s Antoinette is a young girl trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cares more for his private interests- hunting and making locks- than for her. Like Diana, she is bored and frustrated by the routine and rigidity of life at Court. (The Bourbons are depicted particularly stuffy even by the standards of eighteenth-century royalty – wich misses the point, compared to the Burgundian court ceremony in practice at the Habsburg court in Austria ). Like Diana, she is more spontaneous and outgoing than her emotionally reserved husband and the courtiers surrounding him. (She bursts into applause, something normally forbidden by protocol, at the opera). And, like Diana, she finds consolation in an affair with a handsome soldier, Fersen standing in for James Hewitt. The one thing lacking is a Camilla-figure, but Louis XVI was so notoriously sexless (it took him several years to consummate his marriage) that a royal mistress would not have rung true. Kirsten Dunst does not seem particularly regal, but that does not really matter as her cute charm fits in perfectly with Coppola’s vision of the Queen of France as girl-next-door. (Diana, although an aristocrat by birth, was seen as the People’s Princess, the girl-next-door as future Queen of Britain). Dunst’s slimline figure also seems wrong for the famously voluptuous Antoinette, who was more Diana Dors than Diana Spencer.
The best thing about the film was its visual recreation, in the best “heritage cinema” style, of the period; much was actually shot on location at Versailles. Allusions to modern-day female icons ranging from Paris Hilton to Diana, Princess of Wales, or the use of modern pop music on the soundtrack, however, appear rather jarring. (Coppola herself denies any connection. “I’m not even going to comment on Paris,” she says. “As for Princess Diana, I wasn’t really thinking of her when I was making the film but in hindsight I can see a connection between her and Marie Antoinette; this young girl put into this royal family without a lot of freedom. I can definitely see similarities in that royal life but I wasn’t thinking specifically of her.”) The 1760s and 1770s were a period of such riotous extravagance in interior decoration, in clothing and even in hair styles that any film set among the fashionable classes of this period cannot help but be visually sumptuous. I personally consider that “Marie Antoinette” is somewhat better than Sofia Coppola’s previous effort, the overrated “Lost in Translation, but it is somewhat lacking for either dramatic tension or insight into this of this period of French history. The blame of Americanising French history brought to the film, might not be entirely groundless.