How Sofia Coppola made Marie Antoinette

In ‘Sofia Coppola: Forever Young’, writer Hannah Strong digs into the mythology of the iconic movie, its director’s nepo baby allegations, and more.

by Hannah Strong
24 May 2022, 11:21am

Still from 'Marie Antoinette'

“Let them eat cake, she says, just like Marie Antoinette,” croons Freddie Mercury in the opening verse of “Killer Queen,” an ode to — as he told it — a high-class call girl. “I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores as well,” he explained in a 1974 interview with NME. “Though I’d prefer people to put their interpretation upon it — to read into it what they like.” This invitation to find one’s own meaning in an artist’s work holds true for Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre; she has always been more interested in allowing audiences to develop their own understanding of her films than dictating where and when significance exists. But two of her films stand out as less warmly received on release than the rest: Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring

Both based on true stories of fame, obsession and excess, they form a fascinating double feature about the Western cult of celebrity and young women vilified in the name of salacious gossip. As for Marie Antoinette… Well, she never said “let them eat cake.” As her official English-language biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser, who wrote the book Coppola’s biopic was based on, explained: “It was said 100 years before her by Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV. It was a callous and ignorant statement and [Marie Antoinette] was neither.”

Why might Coppola be interested in the life of a European monarch who ruled several centuries ago and met a grisly end via the guillotine at the climax of the French Revolution? Given her fascination with adolescent innocence and femininity already established in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, not to mention her predisposition towards art and fashion (passions shared by Antoinette), there was certainly a precedent. But perhaps Coppola was drawn to the dethroned Queen due to another sort of kinship. As the eldest daughter of a filmmaking dynasty, Coppola was born into a position of enormous power and privilege. She grew up on film sets, counted the likes of Andy Warhol and Marlon Brando as family dinner guests, and has faced charges of nepotism repeatedly.

Indeed, contemporary criticism of Marie Antoinette – whether positive or negative – has tended to note the potential commonalities between Coppola and the French monarch; the headline for the New York Times’s profile of the director prior to release was “French Royalty as Seen by Hollywood Royalty,” while Dana Stevens, in a scathing review for Slate, dubbed her “the Veruca Salt of American filmmakers [ . . . ] whose father, a nut tycoon, makes sure his daughter wins a golden ticket to the Willie Wonka factory by buying up countless Wonka bars, which his workers methodically unwrap till they find the prize.”

“A fusion of modern and classical iconography has become a signature of Coppola’s work, and nowhere has it provoked more controversy than in her mischievous confection about the glory days and eventual demise of Versailles.”

Despite any similarities between Coppola and Antoinette, the director’s love for the Rococo period developed in a thoroughly modern way. A child of the 1980s, she first encountered the aesthetics of the era as a preteen through the New Romantics; primarily Adam and the Ants (though Adam Ant himself rejected the term) and Bow Wow Wow, a band created by Malcolm McLaren to promote Vivienne Westwood’s clothing line. Ironically enough, Annabella Lwin was picked to front the group at just fourteen, the same age Antoinette was when she married the French dauphin. 

The movement was a reaction to the anti-fashion stance embraced by the punk movement in the previous decade, and embraced maximalism, costuming, and a reframing of romantic imagery. Their music and styling would directly influence Coppola’s vision of Marie Antoinette’s court some twenty-five years later. Eleanor Coppola’s behind-the-scenes documentary from the set of the film features Coppola discussing how Adam Ant’s New Dandy styling was a touchstone for the costuming of Axel von Fersen, played by Jamie Dornan, and the film’s soundtrack combines a mixture of eighties post-punk stalwarts New Order, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees with contemporary music from Aphex Twin and the Strokes. A fusion of modern and classical iconography has become a signature of Coppola’s work, and nowhere has it provoked more controversy than in her mischievous confection about the glory days and eventual demise of Versailles.

Two years before Lost in Translation won Coppola the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, she set her sights on making a film about Marie Antoinette. It was Coppola’s mother who suggested she read Antonia Fraser’s biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (a comprehensive doorstop of a book running over 600 pages, including footnotes) as part of her research, and Coppola was suitably taken with this sympathetic approach to the oft-ridiculed monarch, who is synonymous with selfishness and frivolity. As Fraser tells it, “It had been the famous ‘handover’ episode [in which the young Marie is exchanged from her native Austria to the French party who bring her to Versailles] which convinced Sofia.” 

Coppola cast Kirsten Dunst as the lead, though the actor was twenty-three at the time of filming whereas Marie was just thirteen when she became engaged to the future King of France. Casting an American as France’s favourite primadonna was a ballsy move, not least because Coppola then doubled down by filling out her roster with more Americans, Brits, and one Australian doing a British accent (Rose Byrne, playing Antoinette’s confidant the Duchesse de Polignac). Schwartzman, Coppola’s first cousin, took the role of Antoinette’s shy, lock-obsessed husband Louis XVI, with Rip Torn playing his grandfather Louis XV and Steve Coogan the Ambassador Mercy, who keeps a watchful eye over Marie on behalf of her mother — a role that Antonia Fraser’s husband Harold Pinter had offered to play, though his ill-health would have prevented it in any case. Rather fittingly, Marianne Faithfull, herself the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat, played Marie’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa.

Beyond casting a member of her own family as Louis XVI (who diligently gained weight to play the famously portly monarch) Coppola’s brother Roman served as second unit director. The offspring of other filmmaking talent also appear: there’s Dario Argento’s daughter Asia as the uncouth mistress of Louis XV, Madame du Barry; Danny “Son of John” Huston as Marie’s brother Joseph II of Austria; and Bill Nighy’s daughter Mary as Princesse de Lamballe, who would become one of Antoinette’s closest allies. Although this was likely by coincidence rather than design, it doesn’t much help the claims of nepotism which have dogged Coppola throughout her career. Still, at least when it comes to working with her brother and cousin, the director feels no need to answer to anyone: “Because [Roman] knows me so well, there’s a shorthand; he can go shoot things at the same time and know how I would want them. But it’s just an extension of when we were kids — Jason and Roman and I would make little movies together. And you try to approach it the same way as a professional, but you’re still doing it for the same reasons and try to approach it as something fun.”

The opening scene of Marie Antoinette, wryly set to Gang of Four’s post-punk anthem “Natural’s Not in It,” shows Dunst as the young queen languidly reclining on a chaise longue, swiping the frosting off a baby pink cake while a maid puts on her matching pumps for her. In an immediate fourth-wall break — something not present in either of Coppola’s previous films — Dunst spies the camera and cocks her head, smirking. The shot may only last fifteen seconds but it instantly establishes the tone of what’s to come. It’s an immediate challenge to the notion of the austere historical biopic, though the following scene feels more conventional, as the teenage Marie awakens in her childhood home on the morning she is to leave Austria for France. “All eyes will be on you,” her mother tells her, before the young princess is dispatched with her envoy (and her adorable pug, Mops) to the handover spot in Schuttern, Germany. 

It’s this scene which enamoured Coppola when she read Fraser’s biography, and its rendering in the film is just as sympathetic. Marie cries when she’s forced to leave behind her beloved dog (a symbol of Austria), and is informed by the French Comtesse de Noailles, “You can have as many French dogs as you like.” Marie, wiping her eyes, nods dutifully, accepting her circumstances. Again, it’s a brief scene, but one that shows Antoinette’s place within Europe’s ruling class: a girl of thirteen, traded like a pawn between the Austrian and French monarchies. When she leaves Schuttern in an intricate baby blue Rococo gown, the sun begins to shine through the clouds as the muted colours of her native land fade into memory, shortly to be replaced by the frivolity of the French court. 

In time the princess finds her feet, partaking in gossiping about the King’s mistress and indulging in decadent meals. Yet Marie remains painfully aware that her place is precarious, as—despite her best efforts—she fails to consummate her marriage with clueless Louis, who is more interested in pursuing his hobbies of hunting and locksmithing. “Nothing is certain about your place there until an heir is produced,” her mother reminds her in a letter. This anxiety reaches a head when Marie’s sister-in-law, the Comtesse de Provence (though in reality, it was Princess Maria Theresa of Savoy) gives birth to the “first Bourbon prince of his generation.” After congratulating the happy couple, she retreats to her private chambers and sobs, collapsing to the floor. 

“It’s the MTV’s The Real World version of Marie Antoinette, based in reality but embellished for entertainment’s sake.”

Antoinette would earn the unfortunate moniker Madame Deficit in France, due to her (not entirely unfounded) reputation for spending money as the rest of the country experienced profound poverty. The shopping sequence, in which Marie indulges in champagne and cakes while admiring shoes, dresses, wigs and jewels, is a feast for the eyes, playing up the popular image of the Queen as a spoiled, carefree ruler with no concept of life beyond the palace walls — an image pedalled by the slanderous libelles which were circulated at the time. It also includes a fleeting shot of baby blue Converse sneakers next to a pair of ornate period-accurate shoes, which was Roman Coppola’s idea. He shot the sequence and included the anachronism to amuse his sister, who decided to keep it in, emphasising Antoinette’s youthful capriciousness as well as the idea of the film as a fantasy rather than a historical document. It’s the MTV’s The Real World version of Marie Antoinette, based in reality but embellished for entertainment’s sake, and quite possessed of its own design — just look to Roman Coppola’s spoof episode of the channel’s flagship real estate show Cribs, shot at Versailles with Schwartzman in character as Louis XVI and included in the DVD extras. 

But even as she attempts to break free from the constraints of royal life (be it through her country retreat or her affair with the dashing Count Axel von Fersen) the writing is on the wall; Louis must contend with the demands on the royal purse strings while Marie becomes the subject of increased public scrutiny and accusations. Addressing that most famous and wrongly attributed quote, Coppola depicts Antoinette dripping in jewels, wearing dark lipstick as she reclines in a bathtub before flippantly uttering the words “Let them eat cake.” Antoinette herself, hearing the rumour while having a manicure, scoffs: “That’s such nonsense, I would never say that.”

Sofia Coppola: Forever Young is out in the USA now and available in the UK from May 27.

Sofia Coppola
Marie Antoinette