“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”
The tale of a Marie and Louis – forced to reign too young, hated by the commoners of France and doomed for the guillotine – is much too familiar, but Sofia Coppola brings relevance and sympathy to a three-hundred-year-old story, injecting life into the characters of history books. Coppola’s rendition of Marie Antoinette’s life is fresh and imaginative but the liberties she takes are justified. It is clear that Coppola, from one woman to another, wants to reveal all the goodness, the passion and heartache and childlike joy of a queen who, only a product of her environment, might not have been as evil as the stamp history left on her. It’s a contemporary side of Marie Antoinette that, however false, lovingly and shamelessly depicts every bit of excess without a hint of contempt toward the routinely hated queen.
When Marie arrives at Versailles she is forced to leave everything behind, even her treasured pug, then marry a boy she has only just met. She is surely frightened but she greets her new family with a warm courtesy well beyond her years. Kristen Dunst is exceptional at conveying both an innocent fifteen-year-old and a graceful, if indulgent, queen. The wide-eyed wonder with which she views Versailles for the first time is purely authentic, making her young age unmistakable, as is the solicitous love she shows for her children later on and even her discreet fondness for Louis. Dunst brings to life a side of Marie that audiences can root for. It is easy to be in awe with her, of the fantastic dresses and lavish parties that fill her extravagant lifestyle, but at the same time acutely sense her boredom and her pain as she tries in vain to satisfy everyone around her.
The newlyweds are expected to produce a child immediately to secure an heir to the throne, something they fail miserably at. The pressure to bear a child increases with each day and the whole of France seems to forget that Marie herself is but a child. Not once, however, does she lose her temper with Louis, nor lash out at her caddy enemies whose whispers tear her apart behind her back. Coppola’s Antoinette evokes an endearing innocence and sweetness, and a will to please; a far cry from the woman of the legacy she left behind. The queen she becomes is unquestionably greedy and materialistic but perhaps it is the absence of a proper upbringing that leaves her without values and the tools to make wise decisions. Everything she could ever want for is laid on a silver platter at her feet, as servants wait for her beckon call, but who is there to tell her when enough is enough? The only real task she is ever given as queen is to produce children and the debauchery which ensues is a product of boredom. She leads an extravagant life, shielded by her privilege, in a palace which is all she has ever known since the age of fifteen. So when her eyes are finally opened to the suffering that takes place outside of her golden gates it is, to no direct fault of her own, much too late.
It is the near absence of burdening politics that gives Marie Antoinette its charm. There are glimpses of the political climate but the focus stays trained on the everyday workings of Versailles. From a visual standpoint, Marie Antoinette is a sumptuous sketch of opulent luxury and indulgent excess but the script of genuine and dynamic characters is much more than its exterior. The way Coppola normalizes ancient life, creating characters that feel, want and act in a colorfully modern way, lends a new perspective to Antionette’s story. If the elaborate (Academy Award winning) costumes were to fall away, the setting would be almost indistinguishable from the 21st century. With a passioned hand Coppola shrinks the years, bringing the 1700s to the present and taking audiences back in time until the centuries merge into a timeless backdrop.
Coppola’s deep affection for the film and Antoinette’s story is evident through her confident and assertive direction as she leaves her mark on every aspect of the production. With an aggressive pop soundtrack, vibrant visuals and quick-witted dialogue, Coppola makes it known from the first note that it is a film solely about the love life, the clothes, the parties, the friends and the feelings of Marie Antoinette. It has no desire to be historically accurate. One-sided it might be but it works because it’s not trying to be anything other than a captivating fairy tale that brings vividly to life all the myths of decadence swirling around Antoinette. It achieves this, however, not by ripping her legacy apart but by placing it in a positive light. The film wants not to denounce the life she led but rather proudly take ownership of it in a way that makes Marie’s innocence clear. But despite the extravagance, the film is not without substance. It manages to elaborate on all the myths of extravagance while at the same time bringing the young queen right down to earth, in a form that is not unlike any young woman today.
Her life is rose-colored in the film and it makes an aesthetic out of the exquisite clothes, elaborate meals and superfluous parties yet at the same time it exposes the young king and queen’s hearts so when the time comes for them to leave Versailles we see them not as greedy rulers but parents, friends and lovers. By the end of the film, you have grown to love Marie and Louis and to love their quiet love for each other and the family they created. Its one sided stance gives it its appeal; it’s not trying to be a heavy historical biopic but rather a visually captivating, delectable rom-com. It leaves a sweet yet melancholy aftertaste with the final frame, Marie’s bedroom in ruins, a jarring reminder of just how fragile even a queen can be and that not even the grandest castles stand forever.