Bad reviews are devastating, most of the time—you're a subpar writer, you're never going to sell, your output is lacking, "we" won't finance your next work, your future is doubtful. Certain people like to declare that they don't care what reviewers say or even grin and say that is no measure of success because popular opinion is cheap. Those people are either lying or rich. When Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was shown at Cannes in 2006, it was booed. The absence of political and historical context angered critics and some members of the public, especially the French. In the newspaper Le Figaro, historian Jean Tulard called it "Versailles in Hollywood sauce," saying that it "dazzles" with a "deployment of wigs, fans, and pastries, a symphony of colors" which "all [mask] some gross errors and voluntary anachronisms." Some read the film as self-indulgent or an exploration of Coppola's own privileged upbringing. It was accused of being a case of style and no substance. Commercially it bombed in comparison to her previous successes, Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides. But for all the reasons it was hated, it's probably her best film.
I bought the DVD in high school when I was having a stubborn six-month patch of insomnia. Every night I'd get into bed and alternate between Marie Antoinette and Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharpe—I'm not sure why period dramas appealed to me then, but it was probably the escapism. After the sixth or seventh watch, I knew the film so well it was soothing, like slipping on a sweater so well-worn it sits like a second skin. You press play, and every note of music and gag is matched with your own mental audio and the frames become hypnotic. In any case, "Versailles in Hollywood sauce" is a girlish, dreamlike place like none other and should be celebrated as such.
The production was given full and unprecedented access to the palace of Versailles, and the budget from Sony Studios was an impressive $40 million. No expense was spared in creating pure decadence. Ladurée made the delicate pastries, and Manolo Blahnik designed the shoes. It's smotheringly delicious—exactly what Coppola's Antoinette needed when she began to buckle under the pressure of providing an heir to France's throne. Such indulgence was her middle-finger-up to the stifling nature of royal life. These ridiculous visuals, coupled with arty, nostalgia-hued wide shots of fireworks exploding in slow motion over the famous Versailles grounds, or feathers from guest's heads floating around a ballroom, make it a fantasy you'll never want to leave. This film makes every costume piece you've ever watched look like a clumsy middle school play.
The fact it's just another Coppola film about a young woman finding her way obviously appealed to me as an 18-year-old. In actuality, this is far closer to a coming-of-age story than a period drama. The critics hated the fact Coppola favored a girl's emotional life over her status as a controversial historical figure—which says a lot. "It's kind of like a history of feelings," Dunst said of the film, "rather than a history of facts." This is an astute description. Just like the characters in Coppola's other films that everyone loved, Marie is defined by her environment. In this case, one where she's carted off to a distant palace to marry a foreign prince.
As Marie is taken off to her fate, she sits in a carriage with other girls; whispering with friends over a tiny portrait of the prince in the same way you'd laugh with friends at a picture of your date for that weekend. Wistfully she looks out at the forest, wondering what her new life would be and what growing up means. Again and again, the viewer returns to this simple idea—a girl watching life from a window.
Once Marie leaves Austria and crosses the border onto France, she has to leave everything she's known behind. Even her silly little dog has to go. As well as the window motif, Marie Antoinette is in love with the ritual of Marie being dressed and undressed. This first time, she's stripped of every last piece of Austrian clothing and redressed like a doll to be sent to the other side. Of course, it's a chance to show the practices of 1800s French royal custom and to indulge in the frilly blancmange costumes. Ultimately, though, it shows that naked, she's a vulnerable young girl, even if aesthetically and maternally she must provide her body every day for Versailles.
In the first "dressing ceremony" at the palace, the curtains of the bed open on Marie, a tiny blond girl in an overbearing bed. As a dozen women gather around, it's explained that the highest-ranking lady has the privilege of dressing her. Marie awkwardly strips off, trying to cover herself while other women come in with more status, replacing the last. It's farcical and asinine; a long-winded pantomime of curtseying and passing silk slips. "This is ridiculous," she says. "This, Madame, is Versaille," is the response. Nothing that follows will be any less nonsensical and rigid. She has truly entered madness.
The pressure for an heir eventually reaches breaking point, and it's difficult not to sympathize, even if you're not a teenage-girl viewer. For all the wealth and luxury she's inherited, she is not her own. Her body is there for the scrutiny, enjoyment, and tasks of others. It's not her fault for not being pregnant—her pathetic husband is limp in all senses of the word—and the injustice is infuriating. When she shuts herself in a room crying, she's stricken with panic, unable to do the one thing she is there to do. Among all the pearls and pomp, how cool it is to be a teenage girl, how awful and unfair it is.
What makes this film better than just aesthetics and feeling is that above all else, Marie Antoinette is fun. The 1980s and 2000s indie soundtrack reminds you that sure, this is a story of French royalty, but the experience of being a girl growing up is universal. How much does it really change through the ages? And who cares about these details, besides critics, when it's so enjoyable?
Take the "I Want Candy" sequence. It's the shopping montage scene you've seen in hundreds of comedy films, where a character blows loads of money, gets hot, gets wrecked, and has the time of his or her life. Here, it's beyond exquisite.
Frilly period heels, dozens of beautiful lace fans laid out on a surface, three girls sat giggling, drinking champagne while being shown the finest silks and trims as a pug scuttles around, ridiculous strawberry tarts and towering desserts of pastel shades placed down by servants in fast-paced shots, piles of pink and peach poker chips tossed around as bubbles fizz and finally, Kirsten Dunst has the big makeover reveal: a comically tall pouf that she's so delighted with, she air-kisses her hair stylist.
We know our response to this scene—it's culturally taught. Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" is blaring, the beat fast and lyrics aspirational. This is capitalism, commercialism. This would—could—be us in another life, and we relish every second of it. Only in this film, you slip into a world more aesthetically pleasing than anything your modern urban life could conjure up.
The fun ends, of course. We all know the story of Marie Antoinette—she found herself under the revolutionaries' guillotine—but Coppola avoids all those facts and vulgarity. In her version, after an angry mob builds outside, she and her family are in a carriage being taken away. The sun is rising in the early hours over the famous fountain, and Marie, again, stares out of the curtains. The film closes on a still shot of a room in the palace, destroyed. Down with the royal family, down with sex, cakes, parties, and extravagance, and down with Marie, a girl who came and failed to do her job.
Eventually I could fall asleep within the hour to those creamy religieuse, shiny macarons, and Kirsten Dunst's beautiful face. I've not watched the film since. If I learned anything other than to trick my body into resting and a lot about Sofia Coppola's pop auteurism, it's that great work gets slammed, or worse yet and evident in this case—buried and forgotten. But eventually it can stand alone as a key work of daring and vision.
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