Brimming with effervescence and ingenuity, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette fuses the lust of teenage rebellion to the baroque architecture and ideological rigidity of Versailles, building anachronistic parallels between punk-rock aesthetic and aristocratic opulence. Though power chords and petits fours bear little semblance, Coppola uses both to reveal the bonds inherent in juvenile frivolity, aligning Madame Déficit’s passion for pastries and champagne to 21st Century neophilia. By drawing allegiances between time, place and social class, Coppola has made a spirited recreation of Marie’s ascension to adulthood, satirizing female subordinance by viewing it through the archaic edicts of the French monarchy.
Emigrating from her native Austria to strengthen alliances with the Ancien Régime, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) stumbled into maturity at an accelerated rate, climbing from biological adult to queen to mother at the behest of a conflicted and impoverished France. Strapped with an often contradictory set of rules and utter lack of privacy, the Dauphine was stripped of her Germanic identity and canine companion, only to be occupied by a coterie of virulent critics, each spouting barbs like Macbeth’s hags, but draped in embroidered gowns and drunk on carbonated libations.
Her only defense against the monotony of the “morning dressing ceremony,” which bears an audience worthy of the theater, is a healthy dose of adolescent sarcasm, met only by context-deficient adherence to tradition or willful indifference. Her equally green husband, Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), shares this passive noncompliance, preferring a locksmith’s hobby and the morning fox hunt over fulfillment of his marital duties. Despite a shy demeanor and courteous nature, his puerile fear of mating puts Marie’s future at risk, making each evening of abstinence a step closer to annulment and expulsion. Coppola visualizes the future queen’s crippling anxiety from atop a balcony, panning back gradually to use the immensity of the structure to dwarf her diminutive form and symbolize her impotence in the face of sovereign ritual.
Forcing motherhood upon her with extreme prejudice, the royal court uses Marie’s femininity as a scapegoat for Louis’ cold feet, perverting their erotic coupling into a game of political cunning. Her budding sexuality is further confused by the Comtesse du Barry (Asia Argento), whose illicit relationship with Louis’ grandfather and open prurience are treated as taboos by the army of chambermaids that primp and perfume Marie for nights of restless sleep. Du Barry’s fashion sense even stands in stark contrast to Marie’s prude pastels and muted blues, boasting dark purples and pomegranates that threaten to upstage the exotic vibes of her primate companion.
Agitations provided by du Barry and the rumblings of gossipy servants only serve to strengthen the bond between our shrinking violets, elevating their fumblings with sexual congress to a more honest and modern point of reference. Their nervous interactions and pleasant quirks of character manifest flesh and blood from historical corpses, lending emotional resonance to Marie’s manic swings in temperament and Coppola’s passion for excerpts of atmospheric new-wave.
Coppola soundtracks our protagonist’s impetuous fits of spending with the fizzle of champagne and the teasing prance of Bow Wow Wow’s take on “I Want Candy,” transforming the extravagance of retail therapy into sexual placebo. As frocks and half-eaten eclairs are hurled to the ground in dizzying montage, polychromatic plates of macarons and rows of backless mules shake along with the drumbeat, gyrating in a jerky shuffle reminiscent of stop-motion animation.
Cinematographer Lance Acord ups the kinetic ante even further during the Parisian masquerade sequence, taking a page from The Leopard’s formal decadence and heightening the energy to a frothing lather through dazzling hue and subtle flirtation. Marie’s wandering eye echoes the motion of the camera and ecstasy of the evening, glancing southward and delicately stroking her bottom lip to communicate urges to a salacious Swedish count (Jamie Dornan).
Their brief tryst is pure schoolgirl fantasy and Coppola pairs their thrusting hips and vigorous kissing with throbbing percussion and soft, airy photography, tempering the authenticity of the set design with an oneiric, subjective haze. By gently removing the action from reality and avoiding overtly-modern edits and story beats, Coppola keeps her knowing glances on the score and screen as subtle indicators, allowing each metachronism to project, but never cloud the crux of the narrative. She masterfully handles spectacle and authorial theme, never allowing either indulgence to corrupt a lesson in innocence sacrificed at the altar of experience.
*Author’s Note: Kinetoscope Film Journal wouldn’t be possible without the support of my loving wife. I dedicate my 100th review to her and commend her for having such impeccable taste in movies (Marie Antoinette just so happens to be her favorite).
Marie Antoinette (Columbia Pictures, 2006)
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Photographed by Lance Acord