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November 13, 2006

David Womersley argues that Marie Antoinette testifies to the advanced necrosis of a corrupt nepotism - but one to be found in today's Hollywood, not late eighteenth-century France: Marie Antoinette - Sofia Coppola

Posted by David Womersley

Marie Antoinette
Directed by Sofia Coppola
certificate 12A, 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - watches Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and asks, what harm have Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ever done Sofia Coppola to deserve such a trivial, vulgar and shallow film? The awfulness of the dialogue in Marie Antoinette has only been rivalled in Prof. Womersley's experience by an experimental student production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Anachronism comes in different forms. Sometimes it is innocuous - no one who goes to see Julius Caesar is much affronted or discomposed when at one moment a character talks, anachronistically, about clocks. Occasionally it can be intellectually bracing, almost a form of aesthetic organisation, as in Virginia Woolf's Orlando. More often than not, however, it is simply crass.

Marie Antoinette falls squarely into category three, despite having aspirations towards category two. Anachronism is so profuse, so ubiquitous in this film that one can't imagine it was not deliberately entered into. And yet it seems to serve no end other than itself. Certainly, if the intention was to make the doomed French queen more accessible to us, and to invite us to participate imaginatively in her predicament, then it was laughably misjudged.

The result is that Marie Antoinette is best approached as an episode of The O. C. in fancy dress. Only residents of the Sonoma Valley, Palo Alto and Laguna Beach will find that this film speaks to their condition. For the rest of us, late eighteenth-century France has been rendered less, not more, accessible by being transposed into the mode of early twenty-first century California - a world which, for most of us, is more of a fantasy, more remote from our lives, more outlandish and straightforwardly weird, than the court of Louis XVI.

Since De Tocqueville wrote The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, the upheavals of late eighteenth-century France have been an object of historical study. The overall tendency of that accumulating body of scholarship has been to weaken the melodramatic understanding of the causes of the Revolution, nowhere more vividly painted than in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, in which it was the egregious luxury and offensive profligacy of the French aristocrats which provoked the lower orders into violent uprising. Louis XVI, it seems, was an enlightened, reforming and concerned monarch - maybe even too concerned. At any rate, he was a great improvement over Louis XV.

Needless to say, Marie Antoinette does not attempt to do justice to the complexity of our evolving understanding of the causes and nature of the French Revolution. In the Coppola version, poor young Marie Antoinette is the victim of an arranged marriage to the dull, sexually-torpid Dauphin. She finds solace in flamboyant materialism - clothes, pastries, shoes, drink, parties, eventually adultery. Not the least curious aspect, then, about this film which is surely intended to garner sympathy for the French queen is its endorsement of virtually every revolutionary slander which was directed against her (the only slur not countenanced by this film is the notorious saying, "Let them eat cake" - apparently something the French believed that all their foreign queens said).

If one were serious about mounting a case to defend Marie Antoinette against the defamations which were flung at her after 1789, then one would surely concentrate on her final years, when she was imprisoned, persecuted, vilified, and yet never compromised with those she knew to be her mortal enemies. One might also give her some good lines. The dialogue in this film is, at moments, the flattest I have ever heard, either on the stage or off. In my experience it is rivalled only by a student production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in which the director had had the brilliant idea of cutting all the recitative and, in its place, allowing the student actors to improvise. This produced dialogue which somehow fell below even the standard of quotidian conversation, as, like rabbits caught in the headlights, the hapless thesps of Cambridge tried to sound sprightly and "natural".

The same misconceived ghastliness hovers over the stilted, banal, miserably thin, script of Marie Antoinette. The result is that we are asked to believe that conversation at Versailles sounded like something you might overhear in Starbucks. Whatever it was like, it surely was not like that.

Once you've started complaining about this film, it's hard to know where to stop. Why, for instance, is the sound-track sometimes baroque, sometimes rock? Why, alone amongst all the characters in the film, does Marie Antoinette's infant daughter speak French? Everyone else in the film speaks English, with accents which vary from Los Angeles to Epsom to Wolverhampton. The only amusing piece of casting is Steve Coogan as the Austrian ambassador to Versailles, and even here the amusement is unintentional. What Coogan must have made of this, fresh from filming A Cock and Bull Story, one can only imagine. In the cinema, one kept half-expecting, half-hoping, that he would rip off his costume and, with a cry of "A-ha!", emerge as Alan Partridge. Now, that would have been a film worth seeing: the Knowing Me, Knowing You Versailles Christmas Special.

Do the shortcomings I have listed here really matter? Isn't it just pedantry to complain about these inaccuracies and adjustments? Didn't Shakespeare - this point is nearly always made by the apologists for drivel of the Marie Antoinette variety - make all sorts of anachronistic changes to the historical record in his history plays? To which the answers are: yes, it does matter, and no, it's not just pedantry.

Marie Antoinette is a trivial, shallow and vulgar film, in which the banalising and aestheticisation of history bespeaks an extraordinary inhumanity. The film closes with the revolutionary mob storming Versailles, and the final shots dwell on the aftermath of their pillaging of the royal apartments. It was, however, an intrusion and a crime less offensive than the retrospective, imaginative pillaging of those events by Marie Antoinette. At least the revolutionary mob had, or thought they had, a legitimate grievance against the French court. It's hard to see what harm Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette have ever done Sofia Coppola, that she should visit this kind of vengeance on them.

A final observation: does anyone seriously imagine that this film would ever have found financial backing had the surname of its director been Smith? Marie Antoinette testifies to the advanced necrosis of a corrupt nepotism - but one to be found in today's Hollywood, not late eighteenth-century France.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read A S H Smyth's take on Marie Antoinette, see: Marie Antoinette - anything but the people's princess.

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