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November 01, 2006

Marie Antoinette - anything but the people's princess: Marie Antoinette - Sofia Coppola

Posted by A S H Smyth

Marie Antoinette
Directed by Sofia Coppola
certificate 12A, 2006

If you put your hand in your pocket to watch costume dramas you can expect costume and you can expect drama. You should not, however, expect a history lesson. So I'm not sure I understand the barrage of reviews which have complained that Marie Antoinette is insubstantial, shallow, silly, frothy, trivial, saccharine, or any of a hundred similar jibes.

Sofia Coppola's film is all of those things… because it portrays people who were all of those things. Perhaps the reviewers had got themselves dolled up under the misapprehension that they were off to see An compleate & most sterne historie of France. But I don't think Coppola ever really suggested that was what she was trying to offer.

It's not supposed to be a historical movie. Of course, Antonia Fraser's book would have endeavoured to put the frivolous queen in her historical context (you have to feel a little sorry for her now, like seeing Homer's good name being shackled to the sinking ship that was Troy), but Coppola's film clearly never intended to do that. It is a biosketch, or a bioglimpse. Not Doyle's Oxford History of the French Revolution.

Wendy Ide complained - in The Knowledge [The Times, 21st October 2006] - that Coppola's script fails to convey "depth of character". Well maybe: but, whether intentionally or not, I think what Coppola's film conveys is that the protagonists had no depth of character.

The film is packed with shoes, parties, dresses, food, and all that glittered in the foolish world of 18th century candy princesses (the word "candy" actually features in the script, as if to demonstrate that Coppola knows, and knows you know, and doesn't care). But it's hard to dislike, if only because of the dazzlingly pretty and naturally coquettish Kirsten Dunst.

Coppola makes a passable attempt at highlighting the vulnerable little girl behind the ball-gowns, showing us frequently just how uncomfortable Marie Antoinette was with her surroundings. There are some toe-curlingly effective scenes in which the teenage Dauphine is truly defenceless before the ludicrous ceremony and pomp of court etiquette, and one can't help but feel sorry for her. It's not a subtle angle, but it's the one Coppola's pushing: Marie Antoinette was not an evil, cake-guzzling debaucher. She was just a bit empty-headed and out of her depth, much like Diana Spencer when she married Prince Charles.

There are some shabby moments, though, like when Antoinette reads Rousseau to her chums in the garden. And when her child speaks French and "Antoinette" burbles it back in AmeriFrench. What colour is the fleur? "Blyueueueuuergh", apparently. The script, in general, is a bit inept: perhaps a result of Coppola wishing to control too many aspects of the film. And after all the growling about the modern sound-track, I was actually more annoyed by the random alternation of classical and modern music than I would have been with just carefully-chosen songs from the last 30 years.

"We are too young to rule", prays Louis XVI, astutely, on his accession to the throne. And yet he seems completely incapable of doing anything about it. This is perhaps Coppola's main weakness – wanting to show that her characters aren't complete idiots, but not being able to give them any way of actually following through. Antoinette has a similar scene, in which she adroitly side-steps an invitation to become embroiled in Franco-Austrian military politics. But where is this shrewdness in general? Coppola, I feel, gives her characters a little too much credit.

I did not expect to like this film. It's a chick flick. But I came out of it surprisingly content.

To my mind, the film has one key point, which it makes well: it reveals (albeit by casual omission) just how out of touch these rulers were from their people, and how disastrous the results of this isolation would inevitably be, for them if for no-one else.

This total detachment is hammered into the audience by the mock-peasant life Antoinette tries to live, having wearied of starchy court events. She has a model village built, feeds a sheep, gambols in the meadow, and starts asking her dress-maker for plain linen frocks. Perhaps Coppola is being naïve in trying to present Antoinette as a people's princess, but I'd like to think not: what she is surely doing is showing that this little girl had absolutely no conception of what real people struggled through on a daily basis. That she dons the simple garb is frankly tasteless, an obscenity excused only by her being completely unaware. It's like the Queen shopping for trainers in Lidl.

There are rumbles and murmurings during the movie, about financial problems, taxation, support for the American war, but too few to give a sense of anything intruding on palace life. And it's not clear enough that they were happening all the time over the course of many years (the film doesn't handle the time-scale very well). To give Antoinette her due here, she is not present when these dour cabinet ministers make their doom-laden pronouncements. But that's just another example of her ignorance, of course.

The film ends with Antoinette saying goodbye to the gardens of Versailles. There are no silly speeches about "how did it come to this?" or "why do they hate us so?" But it is clear that she and her husband had no idea what was brewing beyond the palace gates. They are stunned. Bemused. It's almost a surprise to the audience - as though, fully-aware of the plot of this movie, we had forgotten the party would eventually come to a very definite end.

For anyone who has visited Versailles or the Hermitage/Winter Palace, the abiding question should always be this: if the good peasants were pissed off enough to walk here from their tiny plots of land, just how angry were they once they actually SAW the place?! The answer is given, silently, at the end of Marie Antoinette, in a short series of still shots, surveying the wreckage inside the palace.

Now we must do the modern thing, and ask what lessons the film holds for us. The first answer is that there should be more films starring Kirsten Dunst. Obviously. The second answer is that the film is not supposed to be a cerebral night out… unless you want to draw parallels between 1789 and the routine ousting of governments which have outstayed their welcome (Cherie won't face the guillotine, I fear).

But since others have decided to take this seriously, I have a couple of thoughts.

Wendy Ide suggests that Antoinette is the Revolutionary era's Paris Hilton or Peaches Geldof, both members of what she calls the celebritocracy. It's a nice word, but she goes too far; there's no need to cast around for commoners. Antoinette is Prince Harry (though, mercifully, much better-looking): important without any real role, uncertain of her position, irritated at being hampered by her position without any particular benefits except boundless luxury.

While trying to make Marie Antoinette into a sympathetic character for the cinema audience, Coppola (perhaps accidentally) also reveals why she was so repellent to her own people. That this is possible is indicative of the gap between then and now, the way we treat individuals and the way we view our betters (if, indeed, we consider them better any more).

There used to be a clear trade-off, an exchange of unthinking respect on the part of subjects in return for unstinting selfless service on the part of the monarch (or PM, or President). Now, we try to think of them as people, worry about how they feel, discuss press intrusion into their lives… and have no real respect for them or what they think. We are unsurprised when they have affairs, largely unconcerned when their kids are found in the gutter at university, unfussed about every aspect of their lives except the ending of them: at which point the nation pours onto the streets to proclaim a great love that it never knew it felt.

So it is fashionable now to view Marie Antoinette as misunderstood ("Let them eat cake? I never said that") or as a victim of circumstance, where once we would have expected her to realise the importance of her role and ensure that she was not misunderstood, or that she gave potentially tricky circumstances a wider berth. The same goes, of course, for the Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson episode: an embarrassing abrogation of duty, now often dressed up as a touching fairy tale.

We should really be asking why, given our enlightened times, we still tolerate and publicise ne'er-do-wells on a par with anything the court of Versailles could offer. Depressingly little has changed. The middle ranks model their clothes on what the modern courtiers wear (Diana's impact on fashion - there's a PhD thesis), try to have houses that look like the centrefolds of the less-exciting magazines, send their kids to the same schools, and simultaneously yearn for tales of scandal from the court (hence OK magazine) so that they can righteously despise those at the top for their effortlessly wonderful lives.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But that's not what Marie Antoinette set out to achieve, and I for one am glad: it would have made it very boring indeed.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.

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