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It hit with all the force of a revolt: the angular post-punk sound of Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It,” hot pink titles evoking the art of Jamie Reid, and the playful acknowledgment of the camera from a reclining Kirsten Dunst. In two-and-a-half minutes, the opening credits of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” took down preconceived ideas about historical costume drama, as if storming a cinematic Bastille.
Adapted from Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Coppola’s film proved largely divisive among critics and audiences. While some scorned the film’s 1980s-era soundtrack and reductive history, others lauded its impressionistic aesthetic and thrumming energy. Yet these bold artistic choices were true to the spirit of Fraser’s stated intent: “In writing this biography, I have tried not to allow the somber tomb to make its presence felt too early. The elegiac should have its place as well as the tragic, flowers and music as well as revolution and counter-revolution.”
A contentious figure in her lifetime, Marie Antoinette has long been represented in popular culture. Commonly portrayed as an out-of-touch spendthrift (as embodied by the infamous “let them eat cake” quote mistakenly attributed to her) whose dissolute behavior and political intrigues triggered the French Revolution, she began to be recuperated in the nineteenth century by historians and by novelists such as Alexandre Dumas père. Though an occasional secondary character in film (Anita Louise in “Madame Du Barry” and Joely Richardson in “The Affair of the Necklace”) and television (Wednesday Addams’ headless doll and in “Clone High”), Marie Antoinette has been most famously played by Norma Shearer in W.S. Van Dyke’s 1938 epic and by Dunst in 2006.
It seems appropriate that women misunderstood in their industry have taken up the difficult case of the Austrian queen of France. Already a popular actress, Shearer’s star rose upon her marriage to celebrated MGM producer Irving Thalberg. Appearing in the studio’s leading projects, she became the acknowledged “queen of MGM,” much to the jealousy of her peers and to the unfair detriment of her legacy in film history. (Joan Crawford famously said, “How can anyone else get a good role when Norma sleeps with the boss?”) Coppola is evaluated similarly; despite awards and acclaim, her career is consistently considered — often adversely — in conjunction with her background or cultural status, obscuring any serious discussion of her work.
In a 2006 interview with the Guardian, Coppola noted that her films focus on “someone who’s lost in the world, the girl who has to find her way.” Her women — the Lisbon sisters of “The Virgin Suicides,” Charlotte of “Lost in Translation,” even Cleo of “Somewhere” — seek to define themselves independently of the men around them. “Marie Antoinette” epitomizes this narrative: a young girl attempting to carve out a place amid the rigid structures of eighteenth-century French court life. The film takes as its theme the subtitle of Fraser’s book, tracing the journey from dynastic pawn — whose “body is good business,” per Gang of Four — to a mature woman who learns to operate within this system.
And though the frothy fantasia of Ladurée pastries, Manolo Blahnik shoes (and a pair of light blue Converse), and '80s pop may appear to detract from any serious discourse, it provides a critical framework. Aligning the politicized structures of post-punk with the court and the emotion of New Romanticism (which drew inspiration from the eighteenth century) with the queen, Coppola establishes the film’s key dialectic between natural instincts and ritualized artifice, visually reflected in the shift from mannered cinematography at Versailles to the handheld camera at the Petit Trianon. The latter sequences highlight her signature style — ambient sound or dialogue, evocative music, colored filters, elliptical scenes — which offer a particularly feminine aesthetic, one that allows Dunst’s Marie Antoinette the catharsis of expression.
Perhaps most significantly, Coppola’s take on Marie Antoinette acknowledges the living nature of history, no closed narrative but, rather, one endlessly negotiated by modern perspectives. It invites dialogue rather than the finality of an accurate re-creation typical of historical drama. Ending as it does with the royal family’s flight from Versailles rather than their violent fate, the film suggests a symbolic break from the absolute nature of the genre toward one hopefully more open, where elegy has as much power as authenticity, where flowers and music can declare a revolution.