Marie Antoinette is a conundrum; is it fact or fiction? Is it fantasy or is it accurate? True or false? Yes: it is all of the above.
Before I saw this movie, I remember it only as being controversial because people could not understand its historical accuracy; when audiences, especially Americans, want to see a movie, we want what it says on the tin, and we don’t usually like surprises. So for many, this was an initial disappointment; Sofia Coppola’s way of saying “let them eat cake”.
It feels like a dream: separate and decadent, romantically unattached from reality yet grounded in the sense that it is only something we are being presented with, not experiencing ourselves. Marie Antoinette is a film of luxury, and its cost.
One of the major themes of the movie is etiquette, and rebellion against it. The first third of the film is mired in tradition and rules: Marie, expecting a warm reception upon her arrival at the Austrian-French border, hugs the Comtesse de Noailles, her French mistress of the household, who responds coldly; the Comtesse reinstates that it is etiquette in France to have a new bride come onto the soil with nothing from a foreign court: she must be fully French – perhaps a naïve wish considering no one can rescind their heritage or its impact on their personality –; she must even give up her dog, Mops, the only thing that has travelled with her in her opening scenes.
France demands new fidelity, and the attempt at a new start is immediately rendered moot, because in its insistent demand to be conformed to, it alienates Marie – only fifteen when she was married by proxy – and she reacts by spending enormous sums of money on gambling, clothes, shoes, distractions from her current unhappiness and frustration, which has the consequence of making her subjects hate her for spending lavishly while they scramble to find the next meal.
Marie Antoinette’s journey into Versailles and the French court, as well as her wedding, moves slowly, drawn on with bows and curtseys, attention to every complicated minutiae of politeness, an exaggerated pantomime of some ideal form of human nature and interaction. It would be easy to lose oneself in the act if nothing real ever happened.
The film, like the persona herself, is not a creature of reality; it cannot be said that Marie Antoinette was in touch with the world, or even had a firm grasp on it. She lived in a gilded bubble and, fittingly, the last quarter of the movie is a sudden plunge into the realness of her position, not just as queen, but Queen of the French, a people who are starving and demand succor. Much like the scene where the people storm Versailles, reality comes knocking at the door.
Coppola is not giving you your mother’s biopic; she, like her subject, is not conforming to etiquette, but rather pointing out the absurdity of the situation, the personality of a hard-partying, self-absorbed queen in a period of immense political strife. Apart from the unique use of an unconventional soundtrack – a blend of harpsichord and The Strokes, Rococo meets rock n roll – there is another element that tells the story of the Queen of France: the color palette.
The first quarter is set in tones of girlish blue, the same sky blue that a child’s room is painted in; the second is of light creams, pinks, layers of chiffon and fabric, pastries, parties, champagne and gold, the indulgence of luxury. The next is a simplistic white, hidden away in the escapist fantasy of the Petit Trianon, where everything is simple and homely. The final is black; a dauphin has died in infancy, the gay and frivolous friends are sent away, the storm of an angered and neglected people rises.
At the end, there is no etiquette left; it has been consumed by the reality of humanity. There is no act, no role to be played, and we are left with a queen who is facing a bare truth, stripped of ornaments; cannonfire, once so romantic to her, is at her front door, and it does not seem so romantic any longer.
The final shot: a looted Versailles, the remnants of her once sumptuous bedroom; smashed chandeliers, ornate doors on their hinges; the sound of birds fluttering, as if they have reclaimed the palace; the sense, not only of abandonment, but of a violent one. Nothing more than that needs to be said, because we all know what happens to Marie Antoinette.
So what, ultimately, are we to take away from this, a film which the director admits is more of a character study than a truthful biography. I think we’re supposed to take away exactly that; it’s easy to remember Marie Antoinette as the woman who had her head cut off, but not as the woman she actually was. Historical figures were people before they were a passage in a textbook. Marie Antoinette is a portrait painted in hot pinks and rock music, an unconventional portrayal which makes us forget what we are expecting and instead enjoy with what we are presented with, anachronisms, converse shoes, and all.