Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) is showing from April 8 - May 8, 2018 in the United Kingdom.
In 2006, Juicy Couture, the clothing brand synonymous with velour tracksuits, released their first fragrance. Instantly beloved by teen girls, available at Walmart, Juicy Couture’s eponymous fragrance smells like tropical punch with base notes of dessert tray (caramel, crème brûlée, and vanilla)—synthetic aromas that choked high school hallways for at least half a decade hence. The print campaign for the fragrance features pastel hues, ribbons, puppies, and a rebellious rococo wardrobe. In it, a model wears a towering, cotton candy wig—as if she not only smells but is also slowly becoming edible.
That same year, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Similarities between this historic-ish film and the Juicy Couture ad campaign are striking. Depending on who you talk to, Marie Antoinette is as empty as an empty bottle of perfume, or as powerful as a multi-million-dollar ad campaign. What no one argues over: the target audience. Sofia Coppola makes films for young women, serves them up like cake and laces the icing with dissent. Marie Antoinette may look like it’s selling something, but it’s pushing revolution.
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is 14 when we meet her, preparing to move from her native Austria to Versailles, to marry the French Dauphin, played by Jason Schwartzman who, as always, looks simultaneously adolescent and middle-aged. The first and most cruel affront she receives from the French people is the confiscation if her pet pug, followed by the indignity of being strip searched in the woods—all in preparation to be an almost-queen.
When Marie Antoinette arrives at Versailles and is not immediately a success, it is because she is not immediately pregnant. Her prince is clueless, also childish—and the couple remains childless for several years. In the meantime, Marie Antoinette develops hobbies outside of wifehood: gambling, shopping, eating cake. Here she becomes the Marie Antoinette of caricature, frivolous, bored, extravagant. Everything that makes her memory fodder for perfume ads 250 years in the future.
This, more than French history, is what interests Coppola, the process by which a woman becomes a myth. On some level, this process is the same as maturation. Often called a chronicler of young womanhood, it’s more accurate to say Coppola is a chronicler of the myths of young womanhood.
Because so many young girls are told, by children’s books or pop songs or parents with poor taste in pet names, that they are princesses, Marie Antoinette is not a historical film but an allegorical one. The political clout of a princess is low and functions almost wholly in backchannels and imperceptible tactics, the more invisible, the better. Marie Antoinette finds her power at court is gained and restrained almost simultaneously, a perfect allegory for the way young womanhood is at once exalted and preyed upon.
Coppola has always been preoccupied by the intersection between personhood and adulation: in The Virgin Suicides, we hear of the Lisbon sisters through the voices of boys who idolized them. Lost in Translation is about two people in love with, and in desperate need of, the idea of each other.
In Somewhere, a failed father figure is also a movie star and, with decreasing intensity, the object of his daughter’s admiration. Marie Antoinette may be based on an historical figure, but it’s a film more concerned with the eternal problem of becoming a woman in the public sphere; the young queen navigates a perplexing world in which rules are not known until they are broken, as when she claps at the opera and finds its not customary. Familiar terrain for anyone making their initial forays in to the ever-fraught realm of womanhood, or, more loosely, adulthood.
In many ways, Marie Antoinette was the urtext of the millennial aesthetic, the pink dream worlds of Petra Collins and Glossier. The imagery that took hold of the popular consciousness around the film’s release was of candy-colored, almost apocalyptic decadence. My favourite rumor about Marie Antoinette is that the color scheme was inspired by Ladurée, the Parisian purveyor of macaroons. Ladurée is name checked on Gossip Girl and exactly the type of place a person would go if they were 16 and visiting Paris for the first time. Ladurée is chic in the way Juicy Couture is couture. That Coppola dressed her film in the colors of self-conscious luxury is deft, and also rebellious. Coppola is wise enough to fashion to know that macaroons and ribbons are gauche, but original enough to embrace them anyway. A tendency to prioritize aesthetics is one of the most enduring criticisms of Coppola’s work, something she leans in to with Marie Antoinette.
Sofia Coppola has famously said, “I think you can be substantial and interested in frivolity.” Having to state something so obvious is not only annoying, but the crux of Coppola’s importance to a certain group of (mostly) girls. Specifically, those reaching womanhood and finding that, to be taken seriously, compromise is key—achieving an ineffable balance between femininity and renouncing it. Marie Antoinette proposes an alternative, hedonistic and frivolous as its anti-heroine. The film is a toothache. The destructive, even defiant, potential of frivolity is the political message of a film said to contain none. Marie Antoinette rebels against her station by exaggerating the trappings of it—a tactic that, while probably unconscious, is particularly striking to viewers growing up in an era of Rookie magazine and the new Teen Vogue, publications that champion an uncompromised mixture of frivolity and substance.
Versailles was the ultimate gilded cage and Coppola’s sympathies lie with her title character, a girl burdened with luxurious but incredibly limited options. Marie Antoinette bedecked herself in the symbols of her own entrapment—was reviled and, eventually, killed for it. In Coppola’s hands, the chain of events is doomed and sadly relevant. The catch-22 of being a princess or a girl is the same: one is expected to defer and, later, scorned for being indifferent. In such circumstances, who wouldn’t buy shoes and get their hair done, pretend to be a peasant, gamble? Here, existence is as precarious as a champagne tower.
The film’s final shot is of a trashed bedroom, chandelier on the ground. It looks the aftermath of an amazing party, we know it was a riot.