When I heard that Marie Antoinette was booed at last year’s Cannes film festival I can’t say I was surprised. The French are an extremely patriotic people and protective of all aspects of their culture.
So, when a key figure from their past – one who was intimately involved in the events leading to their present democracy – is portrayed by an American actress (of Swiss German descent) and directed by an American in a contemporary film of her life you can be sure that the they will have something to say about it. Now, whether Marie Antoinette, the latest film from Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), is a bad film and actually deserved the booing is another question altogether. Personally, I loved it.
Maria Antonia (Kirsten Dunst), an Archduchess from Austria, is to cement the relationship between her country and France by marrying the Dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman). On a small island in the Rhine, Maria becomes Marie and is forced to leave all her belongings – from clothing to pets – behind in a process that, symbolically, allows her to be born again as a French woman. Stripped of everything she is and knows Marie is flung into her new life and is expected to cope with a husband who appears to have no interest in her, being waited on hand and foot (not as fun as it sounds) and the French aristocracy who view her as an outsider.
Marie Antoinette has been described as a sympathetic portrayal of the life of the French queen who, during a national bread shortage, blurted out that the people of France should eat cake instead – although there is no evidence to suggest she did in fact say this. When this phrase is repeated within the film to Antoinette she disregards it as complete nonsense, calling it ridiculous.
Sofia Coppola’s take on French aristocracy during the 18th century is summed up with this scene because it does away with the image of Marie Antoinette as a raving loon and replaces her with a queen who is quite level headed and down to earth. Don’t get me wrong, lavish opulence and over-indulgence (from amazing dessert platters, to diamonds and exquisite dresses which resulted in a deserved Oscar for Costume Design) abound but once the film reaches this point Coppola clarifies what she is trying to do with her latest project.
Marie Antoinette is not a history lesson; instead it is a drama about isolation and adjustment. Its focus is the queen and her life, not the French revolution. This personal and positive approach, excluding the common French people completely (who remain unseen throughout the film) and replacing the stereotyped representation of Antoinette, may have been what upset that cinema audience in Cannes.
Coppola (much in the same way Maria becomes Marie) strips away the conventions established by the costume/period drama and updates them with a fresh approach that is both visually and aurally pleasing.
There is nothing boring or pedantic about Marie Antoinette; it combines a largely 80’s soundtrack, a fast-paced editing style that will keep viewers on their toes and a highly stylized approach to the film’s look. You may say, “Well, what’s the point of doing a story about Marie Antoinette if you’re going to change the world she lived in?”, which is a completely valid question, but in doing so Coppola’s characters become more real, if you will.
This process of pastiche will work for the majority of cinema patrons but I can understand how it will get up the noses of many purists. Marie Antoinette is a personal interpretation of the life of France’s most remembered queen that is also a highly enjoyable watch. I found it more interesting and compelling than the over-rated Lost in Translation.