Rating: I give this a solid B. No really, I had a good time with it. Yes, mostly for the costumes and Versailles.
Summary: The life of Marie Antoinette from when she is sent off to Paris to her death.
I’m still ticked off about the Game of Thrones final season announcement so naturally, I’ve been OD-ing on as many historical/period pieces as possible and trying to get to ones I haven’t seen before. Big costumes? Check. Elaborate set design? Check. Swords and arrows on fire? Preferably, but great white poofy wigs will also do. I’d recommend watching this the same way you would watch A Knight’s Tale with maybe a bit more seriousness because Paul Bettany and Alan Tudyk aren’t around to sing drinking songs. I think most people go into Marie Antoinette expecting to see something in the same vein as Elizabeth- something not only based on a real subject, but is grounded in reality, objective, and accurate. This… is not the movie for that.
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton stole everyone’s hearts with a mixture of today’s music, modern rhetoric, and questionable historical figures, Sofia Coppola produced her own twist on Marie Antoinette back in 2006. Starring Kirsten Dunst and featuring random interludes such as I Want Candy (the original, not that Aaron Carter version), the film focuses on the life of the queen from the moment she enters France to her execution. Marie Antoinette was both loved and despised by audiences due to its irregularity in tone, flippant approach to politics, and… well… fluff. From the costumes to the bedding to the flowers that adorn hair pieces, Marie Antoinette is just as artificial as its time period.
A lot of the film’s criticism comes from its supposed inability to get involved in the more serious and political topics of the time (poverty, starvation, her expense, etc.), but it should be pointed out that Coppola never set out to make a historically accurate period piece- her goal was a film about a woman’s existence in this particular setting. In a film about Marie Antoinette’s life at (and limited to) Versailles and life at court, her perspective, her experiences, yeah, things are going to be surface level because the source was surface level. The fact that the character doesn’t talk about any of this is precisely because she had no one to talk to. Regarding the political backdrop, it’s mentioned but she doesn’t concern herself with it because it wasn’t something for her to be concerned about. The self-indulgence, the spending, the privilege, the unconcerned nature of it all- that’s how it was at the court. If you want a movie on the other side of the French Revolution- the stirrings, the uprisings, etc.- go watch a movie that’s not about the court at Versailles.
If everyone has their proper lenses on now, we may continue. Looking at the film in this perspective, yes, the film is successful though it is far from perfect. While it does lack and drag in some parts, it’s not without reason. It’s meant to feel unfulfilled and repetitive; Marie Antoinette is meant to be a little disconnected and give us a sense of going through the motions. I’m not the biggest fan of Kirsten Dunst, but she does a decent job of portraying the character’s difficulties- her frustration is visible just enough to understand the character’s feelings in those moments and how they develop over time. Dunst wouldn’t have been my first choice, but she’s good for Coppola’s tone. The women roles, from Asia Argento to Rose Byrne to even Molly Shannon, are all cast extremely well and they’re fun to watch. Overall, I appreciated the film’s portrayal of women’s roles, especially its title character. There’s something really powerful about seeing Marie Antoinette not only accept her role, but her frustration within it- not knowing how to address it, explain it, overcome it, and become desensitized to it. We get a lot of movies about women physically overcoming challenges, but this gave a different, less obvious light on women’s strength.
Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning. It’s helpful that they were able to film on site at the Palais Versailles. I do find it strange that this is the first movie they allowed to be filmed in the palace due to its poppiness and, ah, frivolous take on everything. I would think the subjects would want to get away from the pomp and indulgence they are typically associated with. Next to the not-quite-a-set, the costumes are the next best thing- exquisitely detailed and accurate down to the number of petticoats… for the most part- a pair of Converse does show up.
That being said, the move from the past to the present in an effort to familiarize us with inaccessible characters doesn’t always work. It’s a little too… on the nose. I mean, when you have I Want Candy blasting against the backdrop of candy, it’s going to get old real fast. Also, this is fairly inconsistent throughout the piece- I can say the first twenty minutes or so operate just fine without these attempts and I think the young cast, especially Dunst, and the dialogue work in setting this tone. The rock-pop is somewhat oversaturated in the piece and we probably could have done with some plain modern instrumentals and left it at that.
While I don’t think Marie Antoinette is the best historical piece of all time, it’s far from deserving of most of its criticism. I do think there is value in how Coppola told the story and the dimension and scale she gives us of this particular setting but I get why this would be a movie not everyone enjoys. (If you find that movie on the other side of the French Revolution, let me know! If it has arrows on fire, I will make it a priority.)