It appears that the cake-eating queen herself may have been so far removed from reality that a film about her life must be, too.
It’s possible to mistake Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette for a feature-length, historical take on Sex and the City. The film presents the life of the young queen (Kirsten Dunst), from the day of her departure from Austria to just before her death at 38, as a parade of Manolo Blahnik shoes and pastel pastries, with sexual intrigue and the French Revolution thrown in for good measure. My French companion’s only response to the film was, ‘T’as vu des baskets?’ referring to the Converse sneakers that appear briefly in the lineup of the queen’s footwear. Her comment neatly encapsulates a film in which authenticity is replaced by spectacle.
The plot centers mainly on the sexual goings on at Versailles during its transition from one absolute monarch to the next. While elderly Louis XV (Rip Torn) cavorts with his much-younger mistress, the former prostitute Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) is more interested in his collection of locks than in his new bride. With everyone but Marie Antoinette producing possible heirs to the throne of France, advice from Austria on how to seduce her husband comes thick and fast, with mother Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithfull), the Austrian Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan), and Marie Antoinette’s brother Emperor Joseph (Danny Huston) offering their own solutions. Only the latter advice has any effect on the state of the young couple’s sexual relations: Emperor Joseph counsels Louis XVI to think of his wife’s anatomy as a particularly intriguing lock, and voilà!–procreative problem solved. The rest of the film is given over to Antoinette’s girlish romps in the Trianon with her ladies in waiting (Mary Nighy and Rose Byrne) and her tryst with a Swedish count (Jamie Dornan, Kiera Knightley’s former beau). The idyllic innocence of the pre-Revolutionary court remains the film’s focus until the very end. (The infamous “let them eat cake” line is given only minimal screen time as a piece of gossip read out of a rag sheet.)
To concentrate on the historical inaccuracy of the film, however, is to do it a disservice. The production is visually stunning. Although Dunst portrays the queen with an appropriately naïve willfulness and Schwartzman is at his awkward schoolboy best, the costumes, makeup, and, especially, the gravity-defying wigs are the real stars of the film. Coppola’s handling of light and landscape, so striking in her earlier films The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003), is also particularly effective here. The mist-shrouded trees of Austria through which the young Antoinette must pass on her way to her new life as the Dauphine of France signal her confusion over her new role, while the shots of Versailles in the setting sun later on in the film foreshadow what is to come without being heavy-handed. The appearance of the French band Phoenix (fronted by Coppola’s partner Thomas Mars) as court musicians, and Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of Napoleon on horseback reimagined as a portrait of Marie Antoinette’s crush are, along with the baskets and the contemporary soundtrack, cleverly anachronistic details. What all of this adds up to is a biography of feeling, rather than fact, and a charming one at that. It appears that the cake-eating queen herself may have been so far removed from reality that a film about her life must be, too.