revisiting ‘marie antoinette’s’ complicated portrait of girlhood

‘Marie Antoinette,’ Sofia Coppola’s lush yet controversial biopic of history’s most infamously opulent monarch, opened in cinemas ten years ago today. We look back at its divisive critical reception and its portrayal of coming of age.

by Emily Manning
20 October 2016, 8:40pm

I don't remember when, exactly, Marie Antoinette made it to my tiny town, but I saw it as soon as I could. I was 14 — the same age as the ill-fated teen queen when, in one of the film's most enduring scenes, she was handed over to the French government in the middle of a forest and stripped of her clothes and possessions (including her adorable pug, Mops). I was just a month into my freshman year of high school, and like Austrian Antoinette in the rigid French court, I didn't know anyone in this strange new place, or any of its rules — where to sit, how to dress, who to speak to, how to speak to them. Unlike Antoinette, the Franco-Austrian alliance wasn't riding on my ability to pass a math test, let alone produce an heir to the throne.

Though over 200 years of bloody history separated me from the real Antoinette (and millions in Manolos and Laduree macaroons separated me from Coppola's vision of her), I still felt as though I could see something of myself in a film which, in Roger Ebert's words, "[centered] on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you." Very many adults, apparently, could not.

Marie Antoinette's 10 year anniversary occasions a consideration of how culture has shifted in the decade since its release. In 2016, it seems the world is beginning to understanding with more sincerity that being a girl is a rather challenging thing to be. Especially in the creative fields, "girlhood" — and all of the nuanced experiences and expectations that shape it — has emerged as an exceptionally rich site to mine in the digital age. Its visual tropes and lived complexities color Petra Collins's photographs, Molly Goddard's designs, and Deniz Gamze Ergüven's debut movie, Mustang. Girlhood is inspiring a new generation, just as it did Leslie Gore in the 60s, Laurie Simmons in the 70s, and indeed, a younger Coppola in her first two films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. The director herself considers Marie Antoinette the completion of this trilogy — an exploration of the isolation, alienation, confusion, and disillusionment girls experience as they come of age in a world which consistently treats their messy emotions and complex questions with a tidy prescription of what they should want and be. Yet, as Sam Adams argued in Salon, "The same qualities that got Lost in Translation lauded for its dreamy atmosphere prompted attacks on Marie Antoinette for being cosseted and self-indulgent, which had more to do with critics' sympathies toward the former's melancholy May-December romance and their hostility to the feminine frippery of the latter than any profound shift between the two."

I remember my dad, who I dragged along to the theater, not quite falling in love with Marie Antoinette's New Romantic soundtrack — a true stroke of teen dream genius on Coppola's part — but I didn't recall precisely how venomous things got in the press around the film's release. Reports of booing at its first  screening at Cannes were all anyone could talk, or write, about (Ebert later clarified "not more than five people, maybe 10" jeered; in one interview, Coppola shyly reminded its writer, "there was a standing ovation, too"). "Reviews have been not just mixed but fiercely divided," Dana Stevens noted in her trivializing Slate review. "Like licorice, Marie Antoinette is a confection you either love or hate, and both affects seem tied to your feeling about the director herself and her apparent identification with Louis XVI's bride."

Nearly every piece of criticism written about the film in some way considers the similarities between filmmaker and subject. Coppola's capacity for empathy shouldn't have come as a surprise; the director had been forthright about wanting to humanize Antoinette from the start. "My goal was to capture in the design the way in which I imagined the essence of Marie Antoinette's the film's candy colors, its atmosphere and teenaged music all reflect and are meant to evoke how I saw that world from Marie Antoinette's perspective," she said in one interview, and echoed in countless others. Coppola based the film loosely on Lady Antonia Fraser's celebrated biography of the last Queen of France. "I know I will be able to express how a girl experiences the grandeur of a palace, the clothes, parties, rivals, and ultimately having to grow up," Coppola wrote in a letter to Fraser after taking the option to write and direct the film. Coppola said she could identify with Antoinette, "coming from a strong family and fighting for her identity."

That family — one of Hollywood's most powerful dynasties — and the assumptions about Sofia's identity that accompany it are present in conversations about every film she makes. "Sofia Coppola is the Veruca Salt of American filmmakers," wrote Stevens. "She's the privileged little girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 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." Once Stevens's readers made it past her mentions of the retail price of the bag Marc Jacobs named after Coppola, and the paragraph she dedicated to a 20-year-old Coppola's much-maligned acting turn in her father's final Godfather film in 1990, they'd find the arguments that other critics launched against Marie Antoinette. Among them, the deliberate historical inaccuracies that make the film so relatable and distinctive. "I want it to be believable, so that it doesn't take you out of the story," Coppola told the New York Times, "but I'd rather pick a heel that is more appealing to me that maybe was invented 50 years later. I'm not a fetishist about historical accuracy. I'm just, like, making it my thing."

Making Antoinette's story her thing meant scoring it to a riotous clash of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam Ant, The Cure, and Bow Wow Wow; including a sneaky pair of Converse All Stars among Blahnik's pastel-hued heels; and keeping Kirsten Dunst's ever-so-slightly Valley Girl accent in tact in Versailles. But it also meant, as it did in the Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, exploring the isolated and isolating world in which her protagonist exists. In this case, the 18th-century French court, not a house in 70s suburbia, was the hermetically sealed enclave du jour. Like the Lisbon home, here was a place governed by arbitrary codes of behavior, laconic hedonism, immense judgement and expectation, extremely invasive inquiries into sexual activity (or, unlike Dunst's Lux, lack thereof), and a deep-seated unfulfilment that must be endured silently. "No, the picture is not informative and detailed about the actual politics of the period," Ebert wrote. "That is because we are entirely within Marie's world. And it is contained within Versailles, which shuts out all external reality. It is a self-governing architectural island, like Kane's Xanadu, that shuts out politics, reality, poverty, society." For many critics, this was the film's most divisive issue.

Marie Antoinette's focus on the complicated structures of its protagonist's insular environment and its affects on her identity left very little room for the bloody political revolution the real-life queen was so enmeshed in — an omission one critic likened to making a film about George Bush without mentioning the Iraq war. In his blithely sexist review, Anthony Lane mocked Coppola for noting "that she sought to capture her heroine's 'inner experience.' Her what? This is like a manicurist claiming to capture the inner experience of your pinkie." Libération's Agnès Poirier called the film a "scandal," a "disgrace," and "shocking," "because it is empty, devoid of a point of view, because the person who has made it has no curiosity for the woman she is portraying and the time that her tragic life is set in."

To accuse Coppola of having "no curiosity for the woman she is portraying" — or worse, as Stevens suggested, of creating nothing but a vehicle to convey "that Kirsten Dunst's dimples are irresistible" or "that lavender and turquoise look good together" — is remarkable. This film shows us a girl whose womb is an instrument of diplomacy, who is unrelentingly judged by other women, whose attempts to connect or even make conversation with the people around her are continuously rebuffed in keeping with rigid royal protocol, whose thoughts and feelings are not only regarded as unimportant, they aren't even her own. So she occupies herself with all the material splendor that's laid out in front of her; doing so results in death, hunger, suffering, violence, revolution. Coppola's film is not "empty," but very challenging. She tasks us with mustering understanding, if not empathy for such a person — to look beyond the queen's ruinous wealth and find a girl that might not actually be so unlike the ones of this world. In 2016, perhaps we're becoming better equipped to meet that challenge. 


Text Emily Manning
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

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