Louise Gold reviews Marie Antoinette
The true story of Marie Antoinette is one made up of malicious rumour, compelling plot and a tragic end — for her. The Sofia Coppola film version of her story, starring Kirsten Dunst, neglects historical context; it is less tragic and more fun. Dunst is Marie Antoinette as queen, as woman, as mother, as wife, as foreigner, as family member, as teenager, as symbol of monarchy...but not as the representative of an entire social system — as the French revolutionaries of 1789 identified her. The film is nostalgic, but not for the ancien regime: for youth and innocence and shagging boys in fields.
As the fanzine-tastic credits flash across the screen and with a soundtrack featuring the Strokes, Souixsie and the Banshees and even Aphex Twin, this film is anything but a political commentary. Dunst looks up between credits, her shoes being laboriously cleaned by a handmaid, her fingers in a cream cake by her side, and gives the audience a wry smile. This is Marie Antoinette without any revolutionaries to set her head on the guillotine; with learner crown in tow, she is just young, beautiful and really, really rich.
The story barely leaves Versailles, let alone the “Versailles set” as they might be known today. The decadence is non-stop. It’s like watching a copy of a Vogue slideshow on the screen for two hours, spilling its indulgent 18th century contents onto any waif like figure in sight. But like the musicians that accompany her throughout, Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a girl propelled riches and sovereignty unexpectedly soon, and so her hedonism is forgiven. She’s the first famous party girl according to Sofia Coppola’s portrayal; she is something like the Marianne Faithful of her day.
Dena Goodman in her Writings on the body of a Queen calls Marie Antoinette “the first (queen) in France to live at a time when pamphlets and newspapers and other forms of print publicity were ready to put the spotlight on public figures…” Basically Marie would have had a hard time shopping at Tescos, and not just because she would have preferred M&S.
“The relationship between individuals and history summed up by Karl Marx’s famous assertion that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please” is even more accurate for women. To present them as mere subjects of larger forces is to reinforce the notion of women as powerless victims; to present them as autonomous agents who make history as they please, however, is to grant them through words precisely that for which, through history, they continue to struggle: political agency and personal autonomy.”
Sarah Maza suggests that it was “characteristics associated with women’s nature in Marie’s time — deceit, seduction, and selfish pursuit of private interest — [that] were antithetical to the new values of a public sphere seen as transparent, open, and rational.” It was Marie’s “femininity” that got her a particularly bad press.
Marie is a giddy girl when she first leaves Austria to marry the Dauphin of France. She’s well trained as a Royal however, giving earnest and ever knowing smiles, even as she’s scrutinised by the scandal obsessed court in Versailles. The film is punctuated in the first half by letters from Marie’s mother that hark on about duty and consummating her marriage to the very wet Louis XVI.
The dialogue in this film is limited, because it is after all a very long music video with beautiful set and amazing art direction. And so when “I want Candy” plays and the decadence hits debauched.
Whilst Marie is finding it hard to “emplo charm and patience” enough to seduce her husband into making babies, she meets James Dornan (Keira Knightley’s ex) at a masked ball. I don’t know how true to life this affair is but it seems to serve as a metaphor for all the hanky-panky she’s imagined to have got up to. But without risking its 12a certificate by going full hog with the lesbianism and threesomes…
Anyway, the King dies and Marie and the Dauphin are crowned. As he prays, “God may you guide us and protect us. We are too young to reign,” she falls about a field to watch the sunrise in the drunken morning air with her friends.
France sends troops to help the Americans with their revolution against the British. Marie finally has some Royal sprogs and keeps on spending. The famine has begun and her mother dies. Marie is blamed for France’s debts. She has delivered France it’s heir but as the mobs storm Versailles, she knows it’s the end. Looking across the dinner table at her King with fatalistic smile, they leave the palace by carriage, “Are you admiring your lime groves?” he asks as she stares out of the window. “I’m saying goodbye,” she replies.
And that’s it: we never get the always fun public beheading that everyone’s been waiting for the whole way through.
The fact is these kids could be wearing anything, they’re not responsible for France, that is the film’s rather odd message. They’re just having fun. Having fun to a soundtrack that sings: “Fools rush in. Wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know? So let this fool rush in…”