“Lavish imagery and a daring soundtrack set this film apart from most period dramas; in fact, style takes precedence over plot and character development in Coppola’s vision of the doomed queen.”
– Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus of Marie Antoinette.
With Lost In Translation, Sofia Coppola became only the third woman to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, and only the second to win for Best Original Screenplay. The film grossed over $100 million against a budget of $4 million. It launched Coppola from the shadows of her more famous relatives (father Francis and cousin Nicolas) and arguably made us forget how awful she was in The Godfather III.
To say that the expectations were high for Coppola’s next film is a huge understatement. That the project was based on the life and times of Marie Antoinette, elevated the expectations to an even higher level. Marie Antoinette, one of the most widely discussed figures in history, seemed like an odd choice for the subject of a Sofia Coppola film. Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides were contemporary works, despite their highly stylized execution. Surely the period elements of Antoinette’s life would be a thrill to explore, but how would she tackle such a mythical figure? Most of what we know about the French Queen lies in speculation, despite countless biographies.
We often forget that she was only 14 years old when she sent off to be married to Louis Auguste and became the Dauphine of France. She became Queen roughly five years later when she was only 19. When she arrived at the French court, her Austrian background provoked a chilly reception from her fellow aristocrats; she was the subject of a tidal wave of gossip. If you’re looking for a modern day comparison, any one of the Kardashians would make for a suitable choice. There wasn’t Twitter, tabloids or magazines, but the loathing people felt for Antoinette fueled her place as one of the most talked about figures in court.
Marie Antoinette is not a biopic. Though there are references to major historical events, such as the French Revolution and the storming of The Bastille, this is not a history lesson about the French Queen. In fact, the French aristocracy is merely the backdrop for an examination of teenage, female isolation in a male dominated world. Antoinette (perfectly inhabited by Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst) is a cipher character; she could exist anywhere, in any time period and in any other film. And the funny thing about that, is that she has.
Both The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation were films about isolation from a female perspective. In the case of Lost In Translation, being in an unfamiliar territory adds to that narrative. Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte is whisked away to Japan by her new husband and left alone for hours at a time due to his blossoming career as a celebrity photographer. The sisters of The Virgin Suicides are rendered as mysterious, unreachable figures by the neighborhood boys who idolize them. In reality, the girls’ strict parents prevent them from breaking out of their suffocating household. After Marie Antoinette, Coppola explored these themes once again in 2010’s Somewhere by documenting the relationship between a famous father and his young daughter, and again through the eyes of wannabe socialites from 2013’s The Bling Ring.
Antoinette being ripped away from her native Austria and being placed smack dab in the middle of the French court made for perfect fodder for a Sofia Coppola film. The scene in which the young princess is forced to relinquish all of her Austrian belongings at the French border, right down to her pet dog, exhibits Coppola’s knack for making the unknown frighteningly claustrophobic. As the film wears on, we’re get a peek at the letters sent from Antoinette’s mother in the form of a voice over reminding her that her place in France isn’t certain until she can produce a male heir. The scrutiny she receives for not being able to make one appear out of thin air (because she’s certainly not getting any help from her husband) and for her Austrian heritage make us sympathize with the young girl. She is constantly swarmed by people and their talk, unable to even dress herself (that privilege is given to the highest ranking woman in the room at the time) or able to eat alone with her husband; both are placed in the middle of an extravagant dining hall where onlookers watch them eat food right as its brought out to them. And yet, there’s not one person she can confide in that truly understands her predicament. This is a girl who has absolutely no privacy, but is always alone.
There are shopping montages, in which Antoinette and her crew of girls play poker, drink champagne and try on wigs, gowns and shoes. Instead of using music native to the time period, the director opts for new-wave, electronic and rock music from groups like New Order, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Apex Twin and Bow Wow Wow (music has always been, and remains an important element of mis-en-scene in a Sofia Coppola film). When Antoinette, Louis (played by Coppola’s cousin Jason Schwartzman) and their harem leave the palace to attend a nearby masquerade party, it’s a period take on the familiar ‘sneaking out’ theme that’s present in nearly every coming of age film. Coppola masterfully blends both contemporary and period imagery to highlight her thesis. The contrast between the period background and ornate French gowns paired against the modern soundtrack and imagery (the now iconic shot of a Converse sneaker) drive home that this is just a teenage girl.
Such strong, unconventional directorial choices leave themselves open to critique. The film divided critics and movie goers alike; when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was famously met with both boos and applause. Many felt the film was silly, with one critic going as far to say that, “Her [Coppola] historical biopic plays like a pop video, with Kirsten Dunst as the doomed 18th century French queen acting like a teenage flibbertigibbet intent on being the leader of the cool kid’s club.”
While some of Coppola’s scenes do play out like a music video, that’s not necessarily a negative thing. These scenes usually exist to tell us the story in a way that dialogue could never do. Through expert music choices, a striking color palette and stunning cinematography, Coppola has developed style that is clearly her own, which is more than a lot of directors could say about their work. And while the film is weaker in its second half than its first, it’s clear that many people who watched this film went into it expecting something, and received something else entirely. The contrast between the expectation and the result was, and remains, striking. Some people got it, others did not.
The important takeaway is, now that the dust has settled we can look back and appreciate Marie Antoinette for what it is without the negative press surrounding it: A unique take on a near-mythical figure. Antoinette’s larger than life persona that various historians and paintings give her did not warrant a ‘by the numbers’ biopic. With Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola doesn’t show us the doomed French Queen, rather, the scared and unsure girl behind the divisive legend in a way that no one else could have.