Radical, Audacious, Expensive, Girlish: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola is a fascinating filmmaker because she not only leans into girlishness, she leans into the kind of girlishness that society finds frivolous or inconsequential. Even with films like Lost in Translation and Somewhere that have male co-protagonists, her characters are lost and trying to find their way within the bounds of society. Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s 2006 pseudo-biopic, is not Coppola’s best film but, for me, it best represents her as a filmmaker. With a measured lead performance from Kirsten Dunst, Marie Antoinette is the sort of movie that perhaps the real queen of France would have liked.
At the time, the film did not receive a warm reception. It scored a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 6/10. This is still Coppola’s worst reviewed film. I believe at the time the narrative surrounding the film was “wait, Coppola got access to the real Versailles and she made this shallow, empty fashion show of a movie?” Coppola based the film on Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser. This biography is a far more sympathetic depiction of Marie Antoinette, contrary to previous more harsh biographies. Fraser’s book was well received, but Coppola very deliberately took liberties with history. That’s probably another reason why her film was met with mixed reviews. Most biopics try to hide their inaccuracies and anachronisms, but Coppola wears them proudly.
Casting an American actress in the title role is perhaps the coolest thing Coppola does in the film, or at least the most audacious. Instead of forcing poor Kirsten Dunst to put on an Austrian accent that would surely be derided, Coppola drives her central point home by directing Dunst to act like a normal American teenager. Marie Antoinette was forced into a strange land with bizarre rules and customs. The Dauphine turned Queen is just as out of place at Versailles as Dunst is in a French Revolution era biopic. But Coppola makes her film relatable, and modern, by casting the star of Bring It On and the Spider-Man trilogy. Many of the actors play their roles with a contemporary style, making Versailles like an especially gossipy high school. As the pressures of politics wear her down, she feels isolated and confused. Marie Antoinette deals with this by indulging herself with lavish parties, expensive clothes, rich desserts, and gambling. Was that the right thing to do? Maybe not, but Coppola presents the queen as an actual human being who makes choices and wants to live her life the way she wants. The switch from the queen being popular to being judged by society is swift and harsh. Even the last lines in the film suggest that she was never fully understood, or allowed to be anything other than the spoiled queen of France.
Dunst’s career was really popping after her acclaimed work in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Interview with the Vampire, along with Bring it On and Spider-Man, of course. Then she found herself in a bunch of rom-coms like Elizabethtown and Wimbledon before Marie Antoinette. Dunst’s career tapered off because her films weren’t very successful and she was dealing with issues in her personal life. After her work in Melancholia, the TV series Fargo, and her role in Coppola's latest film The Beguiled, it looks like Dunst is back in full swing. Her performance in Marie Antoinette is quite strong, and shows what she's capable of as an actress, as she navigates the theater of the Royal Court and becomes what she was pretending to be.
I remember when our current president was taking office, a joke circulating online was the possibility of a Melania Trump movie directed by Coppola. I’d absolutely love to see that film, but I’m not quite sure how it would land. The big mystery of Melania Trump is how much she is a prisoner in a golden cage versus a complicit princess. Marie Antoinette was seen as a sympathetic figure long before Coppola’s film, and I don’t know if the country will ever get there with the First Lady, partly because our political figures are more visible than ever.
The soundtrack to the film features some terrific cuts like Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” and Adam and the Ants’ “Kings of the Wild Frontier,” and the tracks fit the mood. Marie Antoinette won the Academy Award for Best Costume, which frankly feels tokenistic. The award went to famed costume designer Milena Canonero, who has 3 additional Oscars. Of course, the costumes, the production design, and the cinematography look sumptuous and expensive. Sofia Coppola is less interested in telling a straight biographical film. Instead she makes the bold, radical choice to present the misjudged spirit of Marie Antoinette through a modern lens.