“All eyes will be on you.” It’s a warning Marie Antoinette’s mind doesn’t fathom because she is, after all, only a child when she’s forced to leave friends, a cute little pug, and all of Austria behind to enter the court of Louis XV. Greeted outside the gates of the royal palace in Versailles by the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) hugs the woman, whose mortification is most visible in her severe neckline. This young girl will need molding, and implicit in her cold reception is the difficultly of her pilgrim’s progress toward queenhood—a tragic funeral procession into a gilded confine where Marie Antoinette will be fashioned into something she’s decidedly not and where her every movement will be so closely monitored that the clothes on her back will become not unlike mood rings, absorbing and representing the colors of the demoiselle’s traumatized essence. The last shot of the film is telling: A beautiful, bejeweled bird, this girl will be ripped out of her cage, leaving only feathers and loads of crap behind.
Does empathy explain why Sofia Coppola took the story of Marie Antoinette as the follow-up to her greatly successful Lost in Translation? No other royal in history was so brutally and unforgivably held up for scrutiny, and no other female filmmaker has had her talent, privilege, and success so insensitively begrudged by critics, male and female alike. (Some are going so far as to contemplate a conspiracy in the latest issue of Film Comment, which features Dunst dolled up on the cover and an advertisement for Francis Ford Coppola’s Diamond Collection wine on the back.) The prissy disdain for the vintage of Coppola’s films in some circles could be described as an act of sexual terrorism (the kind that has conveniently spared Wes Anderson, another maker of eccentrically hermetic cine-artifacts), but Marie Antoinette is scarcely defensive, which isn’t to say that it’s without meaning or that its commentary on its titular queen’s rise and fall isn’t barbed.
I plead guilty to holding Coppola’s soundtrack against the film, sight unseen, but now I’ve seen the light and it’s as lucid as the rising sun Marie Antoinette takes in after a long birthday celebration, on a dawn that is noisy with the sound of friendly chatter and the clink of champagne glasses. Coppola’s collection of mostly new wave and post-punk anthems, like the thoroughly modern performances she doesn’t have to coax very hard out of her actors (only Marie Antoinette’s young daughter speaks French in the film), serve as the director’s great, often funny distancing effects—attempts to critically chart and define the space between us and the past, but also to bring us closer to the truth. Smart and playful, the songs of Marie Antoinette illuminate the intricacies of a discouraged young woman’s state of mind and being, from the horror of her initiation into a foreign world (“Jynweythek Ylow”) to her thirst for material possessions (“I Want Candy”).
Marie Antoinette compares favorably to The New World and, more so, to The Lost City—two tales of Edens stripped of their fruit. Andy Garcia’s ode to his bygone Cuba had no room in its limited imagination for the country’s impoverished masses, but that was because Garcia only understood what was taken away from his family. Coppola’s vision is not so pathological: The poor (and their methods of execution) do not figure into her film because Marie Antoinette, like her equally juvenile king, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), had no concept of proletarian existence, holed up as they were inside their palace away from France’s starving, unhappy populace. Their heartache is of a different sort: the horror of having their personal lives on constant display before a snippy and prying court, which prominently includes Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson as very funny ladies in waiting and Asia Argento as the very cruel Madame du Barry, the cat to Dunst’s canary.
Coppola is obsessed with Marie Antoinette’s pleasure, holding out her hand and contriving for her a series of mini revolutions (she claps, to everyone’s shock, after a court performance and, later, carries on an affair with a gorgeous and virile soldier) in order to hint at the girl’s desire to react against that which was preordained—to carve out her own space away from the busy hands of oppression. Cynics will reduce these moments to feminist fiddling, but they are, in fact, very humane considerations of the corset-like effect ritual had on Marie Antoinette’s will. The film is a great fashion show, but it also constitutes a great makeover—an elegy to frustration, where every color and sound evokes the longing and rapture of a girl who didn’t understand her adult responsibility. “Am I here?” the girl asks while playing the drinking game known to us as Celebrity. Her answer is implied later, when she bows to the barbarians outside her gate. It registers: “I am here.” Remarkably, Coppola doesn’t ask us to take Marie Antoinette as she thinks she was, but as she probably was: a little girl who didn’t know better.