Classic Movie Review: Marie Antoinette (2006)
DISCLAIMER: This film is roughly 15 years old. There may be significant plot details discussed within this review. The film is streaming on HBO Max if you would like to watch it before reading.
Marie Antoinette is a film about the significant moments in the life of the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette. It takes place just before her marriage to Louis Auguste until the time at which the mob has taken her to her final fate. The film stars Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Steve Coogan, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Sebastian Armesto, Al Weaver, Marianne Faithfull, Mary Nighy, Rose Byrne, James Lance, Danny Huston, Tom Hardy, and Jamie Dornan. The film is written and directed by Sofia Coppola.
I remember not being impressed by this film the first time I saw it. I was put off by the anachronistic soundtrack, the use of steadicam, the lack of high accented English employed by the actors, but that is what a rewatch is for, to see if there is growth within me and if I can use my gained perspective to find new meaning within. I, now, appreciate the lack of stodgy, stuffy, over serious period trappings.
In the fall of 2006 when this film came out, I was away from home trying to understand my new surroundings and in a long distance relationship that was difficult to keep fresh. I didn't understand how the complexities of my situation at 19 years old actually corresponded to the complexities of a fellow teenager as she was taken from all she ever knew and thrust into a brave new world. I didn't see before that Marie Antoinette in addition to being an unconventional biopic and period dramedy, is actually a coming of age story.
At its core, this film is about a teenager who is given something very few teenagers have ever been responsible for. So, does she act like a responsible, caring and compassionate human when granted incredible powers? No, of course not, "dad!" She wants to shop and party and hangout with her friends, gah! So often even as we are told the ages of historical figures in other period pieces there is a cognitive disconnect with who we see on screen and what it really means to be that age. Yet, Marie Antoinette never feels that way. From Louis Auguste and his pals playing with sticks in the woods to Marie Antoinette being horrified that her dog would be taken away from her. They cave to peer pressure, they look to the adults for advice on what to do, they make so many mistakes and just want to do what makes them happy, what's really fun. It strikes me that these were young adults who were never going to get to live for themselves or be anything other than what others want them to be.
A viewer can't help but wonder if this is what Sofia Coppola herself was feeling at the time. After all she is descended from grand Hollywood royalty and had a lot of pressure riding on her to produce another film like Lost in Translation. That film did catapult her and made her a name of her own in a field in which her father and relatives are held in such high regard.
There's where the magic of this film occurs. The great sound design and cinematic language imbue this film with a deeper meaning than as a simple biopic. We catch snippets of conversations off camera. We catch snipes, jabs, gossip, snide commentary from the crowd. Marie has to walk through this cacophony hourly and fails not to let it get to her. The best of the sequences is as she exits the chamber where her sister in law has just given birth and the assembled nobles hiss their derision that the next in line still has not produced an heir. It's all measured and underhanded until we see a court member actually turn and voice what the whispers are saying so Marie can hear it. The camera pushes in on Marie as she goes through a private chamber and loses her composure. All the pressure of her family, her husband's family, the court and the people of France caves in on her all at once in a claustrophobia of anguish.
This is what I feel many of the biopics about powerful or historical women lack. They lack a woman's perspective on the situation. There's a lot of discussion in film circles about the male gaze and films, even films ostensibly about women, who put the men around this woman in the forefront. In 2006 I understood that to be the default and as I was pretentious in my viewings at that time, not wanting to see films directed by women because they weren't "well made." I didn't understand that shift toward the feminine over the masculine brings a perspective that is more honest about what a woman may actually feel. I didn't understand the scope of reference that this shift can open up.
There is a sequence in Marie Antoinette that speaks to what I think that difference in language and perspective could be. After the birth of her first child, Marie is granted a home of her own, a retreat, as they call it. What may have been seen from the male perspective as another extravagance Marie has added to the debt of the kingdom, Coppola shifts for us into a more emotional idea. This sequence of scenes is about Marie's freedom. Her escape from the life of court, being an object, and the ridiculous protocols in place to make the royals feel more than human. Her freedom is evident, her happiness is evident even as she never expresses the words overtly. She becomes more than what the caricature of history has made her. When she has to put the shackles back on and return to the prison that is Versailles, the palette becomes drab, her skin paler and body less vibrant.
This isn't to say that a male filmmaker wouldn't have the sensitivity to build this kind of sequence with this kind of intuitiveness or that every female filmmaker has the sensitivity to pull a sequence like this off. Yet, what I am getting at is, Sofia Coppola is uniquely pulling focus here to remind us that the stories we've been told, the stories historians focus on, aren't the totality of who that person was, those stories are only a small piece. They're a piece that another filmmaker may ignore to focus attention on the more familiar, more cruel aspects of Marie's life.
I've certainly come around on this film. Especially it's remarkably complimentary soundtrack that expressed the ideas of a teenage woman's coming of age better than any one classical musical accompaniment could. I think it's a film that should be seen and discussed for Coppola's cinematic language and perspective on a story we've always thought we knew. Seek it out if you get a chance.