Are We All Eating Cake?
By Karin Badt
A film directed by Sofia Coppola
Marie Antoinette has nothing to do with history--at
least in Sofia Coppola's new film. Rather Coppola's Marie Antoinette
(played by a dimply Kirsten Dunst) is an American prep school kid playing
Queen in her spare time--which is what this film is about, the spare
time of the rich and lonely. The film starts with Marie Antoinette all
sleepy in her blonde curls, tucking her dog to her pure white chest,
while before her a window to the outside world opens. It never completely
opens: the rest of the movie shows her trapped in sumptuous Versailles
rooms, gawked at by courtiers, making love for public consumption (to
produce an heir), and dozing in a chair while four sleepy suitors play
The perks of Marie Antoinette's life are the
sumptuous gifts of the film: the "jasmine tea that flowers in tea cup"
from a Chinese emperor, the pink teardrop earrings, the pretty ruffled
gowns. The climax, filmed to Bow Wow Wow pop, is a fast-paced pastiche
of strawberry cake, game pieces, bubbling champagne, yellow pumps, pink
Converse sneakers (one of many surprise anachronisms), and a dog wearing
a diamond necklace drinking bubbly: all ending with the proverbial cake
squished in the queen's pretty mouth.
The French Revolution? The event is not present
for this California girl. The film's last line is "The party's over,"
with a shot of a chandelier shattered on the floor (the mob has come):
a recall of the similar ending of "Virgin Suicides," with a tiara on
the ground. That is what the French Revolution is for an alienated American
prep school girl: an abrupt finish. When the revolution happens, it's
just sad. The movie finishes with one last nostalgic look of the sun
setting on playground Versailles .
Coppola has blithely stated she could not care
less about the political context of her subject. Marie Antoinette was
not interested in politics so why should she be?
Her bravado ignorance is astonishing. "I just
liked the idea of teenagers with Versailles as their playground," Coppola
quipped at the Cannes press conference last spring.
She errs. Versailles was no playground for anyone,
no counterpart to a coke party on the Cape. "Every aspect of Versailles
was political," comments University of Toronto historian Paul Cohen.
"Court life was about games, gambling, sociability: who is in favor
with the king or queen or isn't, who is invited to hunting parties.
Balls were political. Proximity was power."
This is not Coppola's Versailles, where the Petit
Trianon is built to satisfy a poor lonely doll's need "to shop and party"
(the anachronism that most defines the film) and court life has nothing
to do with power. The greatest intrigue here is Marie Antoinette's catty
competition with Madame Barry, her father-in-law's mistress: "did you
see what she's wearing?"
For a film treating the most volatile, complicated
time in France 's history -- where democracy and terror forged templates
for the modern world -- it is indeed astonishing that so little happens.
Coppola oddly did not take advantage of the rich details of Marie Antoinette's
real life to complicate her vision, extracting only what she needed
from Antonia Fraser's biography. She shows Marie Antoinette as a perpetual
child, frozen in adolescence.
In reality, Marie Antoinette evolved from the
time she took the throne as the l4-year-old daughter of Empress Marie
Therese of Austria, to the time she was forced to leave Versailles at
age 33. Throughout her reign, she was attacked in pamphlets as the wicked
foreign queen, feared for her ability to influence Louis to take non-French
stands and in constant fear of the hunger riots. By her final years,
Marie Antoinette, commanding mother and negotiator, had evolved so far
from dejeune schoolgirl that she was writing her brother Emperor Joseph
in Austria to garner insurrectionary troops to put down the revolution.
She was executed, along with her husband, not as a symbol of decadent
monarchy (the taunt "let them eat cake" is apocryphal) but as a political
Marie Antoinette not only dealt constantly with
politics; she was politics. Her marriage, organized for her
by her powerful mother, was an alliance of the Austrian and French powers.
The intense attention given her initial inability to have children was
not a psychological issue, as portrayed in the film (Dunst is mortified
about what the other ladies will think), but crucial to France 's position
in Europe. The seven-year barren phase that Coppola casts as Marie's
inability to seduce an asexual, dumpy husband, despite her charming
curves, was not a lust problem but a medical problem. Louis XVI's member
was too big to allow for a comfortable erection; an operation, cutting
the foreskin, led to the dynasty's continuation.
As politics, the film fails miserably, and as
biography, it is an insult to Marie Antoinette. But it also fails on
its own terms as a story. It is like a rock video of loneliness on a
lavish set: static, inert, with no dramatic arch or meaning beyond the
parade of consumption and boredom.
Despite all this, from the time of its debut
in France, the film has met with many excited fans, including top American
and French critics. Cahiers du cinema editor Jean-Michel Frodon
thought the film should have won at Cannes. "Coppola's a genius at expressing
the sense of étrangete [alienation]," mused Frodon. "Marie
Antoinette is an adolescent who doesn't like the rules, as we all are.
The individual versus the collective is a serious topic." Despite a
few boos at the Cannes premiere, the French accepted the facile treatment
of class and politics. The film ran 4th at the box office for the first
weeks of its release, and received acclaims from the most prominent
journals in Paris: Cahiers du Cinema, Positif, Inrockuptibles, Le
Jane Campion defended Coppola, one of her few
successful fellow women directors. "Good for her," she confided to me
over coffee. "She films what she knows." Namely, the depiction of an
alienated teenage girl, who feels claustrophobic in her room and awkward
with other people: the same subject as Coppola's prior films, Virgin
Suicides and Lost in Translation.
The film also promises to do well in the U.S.
[where it opened on October 20]. Lincoln Center Film Comment
Editor Gavin Smith has given it his thumbs up: sure it's superficial,
Smith noted, but his magazine can defend that.
This complacent response to a piece of Hollywood
consumerism and indulgence in adolescence, way past the age of adolescence
(for both Marie Antoinette and Coppola) points to how childlike our
audiences--and even our top critics--have become. Why hasn't anyone
pointed out that Coppola's film partakes in the very bubbly consumerism
at the root of her characters' malaise?
It could be that spectators--and critics--are
caught up in the same bubble themselves. That the French have accepted
such an ahistorical, sanitized view of their infamous queen--and controversial
Revolution--says a lot about their confusion about their own identity.
Depictions of the French Revolution have been flashpoints of French
identity politics since 1789, litmus tests of where the country is going:
left, right, or nowhere in particular. Hailed as a heroic event during
the Marxist 1960s, the Revolution was just as strongly reviled, identified
with the Terror, at the bicentennial when class struggle was out of
fashion. French revolution films have followed the trends: Renoir's
1938 film La Marseillaise, during the heyday of the Popular
Front, featured lively intellectual partisan revolutionaries critiquing
the arbitrary power of the authorities: a veiled critique of fascism.
Rohmer's L'Anglaise et le Duc (2001) went conservative: the
revolutionaries are dirty beasts who paw elegant ladies about to have
their heads cut off. And in this latest import, the Revolution is missing
It may be no coincidence that the French populace
is enjoying a Marie Antoinette purged of all politics at a time when
France is tottering through its 5th republic, with scandals hitting
left and right (i.e. the Clearstream affair), and Prime Minister Villepin
is viewed contemptuously for mishandling last year's youth protests,
as reviled as Marie Antoinette in her heyday. The country is in crisis,
many say, insecure about economic and physical security, and skeptical
of the left and the right. Perhaps depoliticizing royalty is a way to
avoid political thinking.
"It's the white telephone effect," explained
Annie Duprat, a Marie Antoinette scholar at the University of Versailles,
referring to the blowsy films most appreciated in fascist Italy and
France: films that showed Hollywood ladies lounged on white beds with
white phones. "People want to see bourgeois aesthetics on film, to distract
themselves from the real problems."
"It's the same phenomenon as American Idol
and Lost," comments Revolutionary scholar Lynn Hunt. "A historical
figure long disdained by 'serious' intellectuals as shallow, excessively
consumerist ('let them eat cake'), and out of touch with the misery
of her times is now embraced by those who are tired of being considered
shallow, excessively consumerist and out of touch with the misery of
If the French don't care, forget the American
public--already at ease with movies and books that don't detract from
a middle-class suburban view, and ready to proclaim the latest artistic
splurge of "self-expression"--the most revealing navel-gazing memoir--as
high art. The film is sure to be a hit: aesthetic enough to please,
postmodern enough to receive critical acclaim, and bland enough to satisfy
an apolitical populace complacently accustomed to eating cake.