Throughout the course of her two decade career, Sofia Coppola has dazzled our screens with melancholic depictions of girlhood, transporting us into the worlds and headspace of characters we find ourselves relating to. Coming from all walks of life, her heroines have included a depressed suburban girl, a directionless American living in Tokyo, a misfit teen who steals from the elite, and the subject of her magnum opus— Marie Antoinette, a controversial teen queen.
When Marie Antoinette premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, it was booed and panned by critics who wrote it off as a historically inaccurate film that prioritizes style over substance. Through both style and substance, however, Coppola paints a luxurious and emotional portrait of the infamous monarch. Instead of reading from a history book, Coppola interprets and molds it, making the story distinctly her own yet true to the era and characters it portrays.
From the moment the hot pink title card appears on screen as Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It” plays, it’s clear that Marie Antoinette isn’t a typical costume drama. Partially based on Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, the film presents us with a lush, pastel-filled fairytale that looks like it manifested itself from a dream. Coppola’s muse Kirsten Dunst plays the titular, Converse-wearing ill-fated girl who is taken to France from her native Austria to cement an alliance between the two nations through her marriage to the soon-to-be king of France, Louis XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman, who instills a nerdiness in the dauphin. As she is taken from her homeland, Marie is stripped of all remnants from her past life and thrust into a world where she must leave her girlhood behind. Her duty is to provide an heir to the throne, but she soon becomes the laughing stock of Versailles due to her husband’s unwillingness to consummate their marriage.
Marie drowns her sorrows through her material desires, which reaches its zenith with some major retail therapy set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” A glamorous montage captures Marie and her girlfriends picking out fabrics, indulging in cakes and bonbons, drinking from overflowing towers of champagne, and playing poker. Preoccupied with the bubble she lives in, Marie barely bats an eye at the chaos occuring in her nation. France’s political state is barely mentioned, as Coppola chooses to remain within the walls of Versailles in order to reflect Marie’s naiveté.
Coppola takes her dreamy aesthetics and signature delicate feminine style to another level, thanks to the unprecedented access she was given to Versailles. The opulent production design and extravagant costumes make for a succulent feast of eye-candy. For two hours, Coppola uses Versailles’ isolation as her vessel to track Marie as she roams around and yearns for escape. Marie doesn’t seem to fully escape until the second half of the film, when she begins spending time at the Petit Trianon. Here, she goes beyond the stifling court to a picturesque fantasy life she built for herself — one that looks like it came straight out of a cottagecore moodboard.
It would be impossible to talk about Marie Antoinette without talking about the anachronistic soundtrack at the heart of the film. Filled with pitch-perfect needle drops, the soundtrack masterfully blends the past and present, all the while perfectly scoring the life of a teenage girl. Lyrics often reflect what Marie is feeling, such as when Julian Casablancas sings “I want to be forgotten, and I don’t want to be reminded” as Marie longs to be freed from the hold of Versailles and court. Through the New Wave and post-punk sounds of New Order, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Marie Antoinette transforms Versailles into a modern-day high school (think Gossip Girl and Mean Girls), where Marie is the new girl entering a school packed with elite gossipy cliques.
By approaching the story through a contemporary lens, Coppola succeeds at making a historical figure relatable to a modern audience while making statements about society. The close-up on Marie’s life is used to show the way that women become trapped with expectations and end up being punished when they don’t live up to them. It humanizes without glorifying or siding with the title queen, showing her as a complex person who was pushed into adulthood before reaching her 16th birthday.
“I wanted to make a personal story and not a big epic historical biopic,” Coppola said in an interview with The New York Times. And she did just that, resulting in the film being her most daring and authentic film to date. With Marie Antoinette, Coppola goes beyond the scope of what a period film is supposed to be like, breathing life into a genre that feels repetitive at times. What makes Marie Antoinette Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece is not only its visual appeal, but also Coppola’s ability to operate in two eras at once, using modern elements to show us that Marie Antoinette was, after all, just a girl.
by Jihane Bousfiha