“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”
This film has been featured in an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!
Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.
The plot follows the infamous Marie Antoinette, starting with her move to France and betrothal to Louis XVI at 14 years old, and going all the way to her run from the angry French mob at age 38, stopping just short of her famous execution. If you’re expecting international politics and a history lesson, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The film spends surprisingly little time discussing politics, instead focusing on the personal life and struggles of Antoinette as she finds herself in an awkward marriage and in the middle of some large disagreements in her new nation. As such, the film is a fantastic drama, but a lousy historical piece, but that’s exactly what the director was trying to do.
How can we be expected to live in a place if we are not certain about our position?
With the focus on Antoinette’s humanity, we’re given a fantastically well-rounded and deep character that’s surprisingly relatable. This film has been very popular with young women, and it’s because the film is basically a coming-of-age story for a young woman thrust too soon into adult concerns and expectations. This is where Coppola played a bit with historical fact. Instead of the real-life Antoinette, who was exceedingly clever and knew the political game as soon as she moved to France, the Antoinette portrayed in this film is still learning the ropes of both the crown and her marriage. She’s not perfect and has a fair amount of flaws, but she truly cares and she’s doing the best we can, and I was able to really empathize with that. Society’s expectations of Antoinette in this film are immense and provide the main conflict. This isn’t a film about political chess pieces trying to checkmate one another; it’s a film about societal expectations destroying a great woman, and that’s what makes it so relatable to modern audiences. This is essentially an allegory for the pressures of being a woman in any age.
Perhaps the most controversial of Coppola’s decisions were made to make the film more relatable to modern viewers. Most strikingly, modern music was used in places where it best fit the mood, such as the use of “I Want Candy” over a montage of Antoinette’s wild spending habits. The creep of modernity into the film goes deeper—in the pile of shoes that Antoinette is trying on, you can spot a pair of modern Converse sneakers. These style choices are the chief complaint amongst detractors of the film, who were most likely expecting a traditional period piece about the politics of France. Instead, this is a story of a teenage girl growing up, and that dictated a lot of these decisions. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of this one, and it’s completely missed by many critics.
The film itself strikes a curious balance of happy and sad, amusing and heartbreaking, and flits between both effortlessly, sometimes in the same scenes. Playing into Coppola’s strengths as a filmmaker, the emotions here are deep and complex, not so simple as a happy wedding or a sad revelation. But for all their complexity, I was able to identify with each of the emotions I saw play out. Coppola and Dunst were able to convey in seconds what would take quite a long time to explain in words to someone else, and the emotional depth was refreshing to see in a sea of films with simple problems and simple emotions.
As much as I loved Marie Antoinette, it’s not for everyone. Both the conflict and the overall strength of the film are primarily emotional, and it takes an important historical figure and reduces her to these emotional interactions. The film has become a cult classic with young women who saw in this version of Antoinette what so many other filmmakers fail to show, but there are also countless negative reviews from reviewers looking for more action. Those speaking ill of the film frame this as a lack of substance, but I see it as a different kind of substance. I loved the film and I’m glad it’s here for the people it speaks to. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.
Director: Sofia Coppola
Genres: biopic, drama, historical, indie