I’m not sure if this is an overreach, but I feel like Sofia Coppola’s choice to make a biopic of sorts about Marie Antoinette is a feminist statement in of itself. That probably requires some justification, so here goes: what comes to mind when you hear ‘Marie Antoinette’? For me – and I imagine for many others – I think of that infamous quotation “Let them eat cake.”
Give or take the guillotine, that quote – historically dubious though it is, presented as a tabloid invention in Coppola’s film – is the main thing I remember about the French Revolution. For the most part, that quote resonates because it’s a perfect encapsulation of vain greed, a realisation of our worst fears of the disregard of the spoiled ruling class. But I’d argue there’s an edge of sexism beneath the scorn, centring the excess of French royalty in thoroughly feminine frivolity. (After all, who remembers Louis XVI? Other than people who actually care about history, duh.) Marie Antoinette operates as a scapegoat, a symbol bearing the brunt of scorn rather than the intensely inequitable society that produced her.
Marie Antoinette’s first challenge, then, is to act as a kind of courtship – or seduction. Just as teenage Marie (Kirsten Dunst) must win over her foppish, childish husband (Jason Schwartzman, expertly channelling an awkward, closeted twelve year-old), so too must Coppola win over her audience. Rather than initially trying to present Marie as a moral figure – a dubious ask – she presents as an oblivious innocent with an edge of eroticism. Again and again Marie is filmed in states of undress or in flimsy, transparent nightgowns; it’s occasionally sexy, yes (it helps that Dunst was God-tier attractive at 24 years old), but it’s also often infantilising, such as when Marie stands naked before of a gaggle of high class ladies waiting for the highest-ranked to clothe her.
Eventually and inevitably she establishes herself in France. She bears Louis’ children, and ascends to the rank of Queen after Louis XV’s (Rip Torn’s) death. No longer do we see Marie barely-clad; she is only dressed in the finest of gowns. There are so many gowns here, and ridiculous hair, and cake – of course, cake! It’s colourful and excessive and oh so very Sofia Coppola. I’ve seen this opulent aspect of the film dismissed as “a pop video” but that’s the point, dammit.
Much like Amadeus before it, Marie Antoinette consciously avoids historical accuracy in events or aesthetics, and even borrows Amadeus’ retro-pop-punk style (given that Tom Hardy briefly appears to play a celebrity head-style game as Mozart, I don’t think this is accidental). The post-punk soundtrack (it opens with Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It”! I love you Sofia!) is a clever choice, recalling the early eighties and how that genre of music became the commercialised confection called “New Wave.” The parallels between the excesses of the French royalty of the eighteenth century and the American corporate culture of the eighties are obvious. But they’re given extra nuance by the screenplay’s suggestion that the cause of the poverty that led to the French Revolution is France’s support of America’s own revolution against the British.
All of these subtleties are buried under piles of glorious silk and sumptuous treats, of course, which means that it’s easy to characterise the film as pretty but purposeless. Just as with the myth of Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake,” it’s worth digging deeper.