It’s hard for me to describe how excited I was when I first saw the trailer for Marie Antoinette directed by Sofia Coppola. I was about 15 when the trailer came out and I was riveted: cool punky modern music mixed with 18th century fashion and this glamorous story about a doomed queen in revolutionary France. Sign me up!! Remember, this was many years before Hamilton and while I totally found the 18th century cool and exciting and hip, I don’t think that was the consensus and a lot of period pieces I’d seen felt really staid and kind of stodgy. The idea of a fun, edgy, period film with a rock-and-roll vibe about, and presumably for, young people was really, really exciting.
When I saw the film though, I was disappointed. Assuming my expectations might have been too high, I watched it again a few years later: still didn’t like it. Now, when I was at home sick with a cold (not Covid btw if you’re wondering. I tested a lot), I decided that I’d give it a THIRD try, over 15 years after its original release, to see if the film, which had failed to win over fifteen-year-old Carly could win over thirty-year-old Carly. The answer was, sadly, no. It didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like in Marie Antoinette and if I compare it to some of the popular period fare these days like Bridgerton, it’s so much better than that. But it suffers from a couple of different things (I’m aware as well that a lot of people liked this film, and I’ll get to what I did like about it later!).
For starters, Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst) is the story of a doomed French queen who was guillotined (thankfully, not shown in this film) during the French Revolution (late 18th century). She was famous for her spending and is credited with the famous remark (which she probably never said), in response to the starving French population: ‘Let them eat cake.’ She became kind of a symbol of the spending and decadence of the monarchy and the French court. It’s a glamorous film and, like its young queen, it isn’t really concerned much with anything outside of her life at the palace. The film starts with her leaving her native Austria to marry a young French prince and how awkward this is, how lonely she feels, etc. And while Coppola captures this loneliness really well (there’s a lot of shots of Dunst alone in giant rooms, or alone looking out the window of a giant palace, or running alone down corridors), I suppose I just…didn’t feel bad for her? And with not much else going on plot-wise in the film, I do think you’re meant to feel bad for her or at least be interested in her situation. I might just know too much about this period to feel sad about her marital problems when so many people were living in squalor (for more on the French Revolution, you can check out my review of A Tale of Two Cities).
Coppola paints Marie’s obsession with shopping and clothes and shoes to be a kind of escape for her from a sexless marriage and the pressures of her new role in French court, a coping mechanism if you will. Interesting idea. And that might have been true. She also seems to suggest that all of these behaviors (her lack of engagement with politics of the time, her overspending) are the results of her youth and her husband’s youth, but they are 18 at the midway point in the film and continue to age until maybe late 20’s by the end of it? In the 18th century, as now, 18 was an adult age. Especially then, depending on age and class, by 18 you might have already been working for several years, or your entire life, and you could possibly be married too. I don’t feel bad that ‘these were just teenagers’ who ‘didn’t know what they were doing’, which the film seems to subtly suggest.
In principle, I have no problem with movies about decadent royals (or decadent, ludicrously wealthy people, generally). The Favorite is a good example of a strong period film about equally selfish and decadent people. But this film just felt to me particularly politically tone deaf? It also (confusingly) seems to suggest that a large part of why the people were revolting was that France had supplied too much aid to the Americans during the Revolutionary war and it was crippling the economy? I’m not super up on my French history and while this might have been a contributing factor to a weakened economy, there was so much else going on that people were rebelling about that is just a lot more interesting than Marie’s life. They wanted to abolish feudalism, to gain basic rights for everyday people. Sure, it went south (understatement of all time…), but it’s fascinating stuff! This film I just found kind of dull.
That being said, if we take the political context away, it’s a nice enough movie about a lonely monarch and it looks amazing (too pretty of course, as I usually say with period films, no rotten teeth or rats running around Versailles, as I think there would have been!). The clothes are all candy colored, bright, whimsical and incredibly fun to look at. The soundtrack is youthful and fun too. I think Coppola has said she wanted the colors, the sounds to all show the young queen’s inner life. But, again, I think this reimagines her as like a modern teenager. She may have been young, but she wasn’t THAT young.
There’s also a great use of sound, as you can always hear gossipy chatter off on the sidelines, which suggests that Marie is always being watched, looked at and judged. Coppola is simply a very good director, and so many of the shots are thoughtful and visually interesting. She’s also super restrained, which works especially well at the ending, where the final shot (spoiler alert) is just a bedroom with all of Marie’s furniture smashed up, rather than showing us her beheading. Great. Poignant. Really, really liked that.
I also can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear actors using their NORMAL ACCENTS in a period film. I love how they don’t make everyone put on ridiculous British accents, even though the film is set in France, as most period films would do. It makes everything feel more naturalistic and I think it makes the actors more comfortable too (for example, Jamie Dornan has never been more appealing than he is in this film – I maintain that one of the many reasons he registers as so dang creepy in those 50 Shades of Grey movies is his stilted and oddly formal American accent!). After seeing House of Gucci recently (great actors, weird accents) it was just a nice touch to have everyone speak in a ‘normal’ way here (aka whatever is normal for them).
So not a terrible film, but not a very good one either in my eyes. It was fresh at the time for its approach to the ‘period piece’ but, as with Hamilton actually, I just wish these creative people had found a more worthy biographical subject. Or at least looked at that subject in a more critical or at least more ambiguous way.
What did you think of the movie when it came out? Am I being too harsh? Do you have a favorite movie with Kirsten Dunst or by Sofia Coppola (I quite liked The Beguiled…)?
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss out on a new post on the first Monday of every month!
PS Today’s featured image is of the storming of the Bastille Prison, in 1789, an event mentioned but not shown in the movie.