“I think she’s delightful. She looks like a little piece of cake.”
Marie Antoinette never did say “Let them eat cake”, but that didn’t stop Sofia Coppola from whipping up a movie dusted in icing sugar and candyfloss.
It should be acknowledged before anything else that Marie Antoinette is neither a startling nor a stunning film, despite the potential of its subject matter. Sofia Coppola’s direction of her third feature is not always smooth or inspiring; it suffers from uneven pace and confuses silence with boredom. But Marie Antoinette is, without doubt, a beautiful film, and an unusual one too.
Marie Antoinette is a period drama for the mumblecore generation. Though it lacks some of the more common identifiers – this is not, after all, low-budget, nor is the cast unknown – a sense of aimlessness pervades, letting the film meander through the complex emotional lives of young people who cannot quite articulate their feelings. That those young people are the Dauphin and Dauphine of 18th-century France is immaterial; Louis and Marie’s awkward fumbling could exist in the black and white New York of Frances Ha as easily as it does in the lavish technicolour of Versailles. It is easy to see the cycle of influence between mumblecore directors like Bujalski and Baumbach and Coppola’s film, and from Marie Antoinette to shows like Girls and even, dare one say it, the naturalistic style creeping into the mainstream with films like Magic Mike.
Coppola makes ample space in her script for improvisation. A tightly structured first act slowly unlaces its corset, turning stiff formality into casual chatter. Coppola’s young cast are set free, revelling in the frivolity of their subjects: gambling, drinking, love, lust. Dressed in all their finery, wigs powdered, make-up affixed, champagne overflowing from those infamously-shaped glasses, her courtiers play Who Am I?, papers stuck to their foreheads with names written in flourishing 18th-century handwriting. The cast, in character and playing for real, might as well be in Hannah Horvath’s cramped New York apartment.
It’s far from Coppola’s only touch of modernism. The film is awash with it, existing in a nowhere world of corsets, cakes, and Converse. Contemporary baroque music – Vivaldi, Rameau, Scarlatti – is deployed only when necessary, leaving 1980s punk and new wave to fill in the gaps, both in music and style. Marie’s lover Von Fersen is conspicuously styled as an Adam Ant for 1780s, while Annabella Lwin sings “I Want Candy” over a never-ending parade of cakes and clothes. Marie Antoinette’s musical landscape is shaped by Brian Reitzell, Coppola’s right-hand musical man, and their magic is in making New Order and The Cure feel like they belong in pre-revolutionary France. It helps that Marie Antoinette’s players do not disguise their native tongues, so that Louis XV can snarl in Rip Torn’s Texan drawl and Marie herself in a soft New Jersey tone. Against the exceptional historic detail of location and landscape, the match between modern accent and music ties Coppola’s quasi-historic world together, in much the same way as Marie Antoinette’s pink Converse All-Stars match her Baroque bodices.
It’s that colour palette too which makes Marie Antoinette stick in the memory. Coppola revels in her film’s access to Versailles, which is often hard-won (just three English-language projects were allowed inside its walls that decade). The decadence and scale of the Palace is reflected in the costume department, with ten different rental houses providing its vast bulk of panniers and skirts. As it was for their real counterparts, Versailles is an extension of the players, even going so far as to match fabric with wallpaper; at some points Marie literally blends into the background, as much a part of the furniture as her four-poster bed. To France, she is just another decoration.
Vibrancy is paramount at Versailles – Louis XIV was not called the Sun King for nothing – but it’s in the choice of how and when to deploy it that Coppola’s film lives. The light romanticism of her first act, a cloud of pale blues and innocent ivories, allows the film’s middle third to explode into fabulous pinks and livid greens, all the brighter for their predecessors. The spiral of Marie’s empty existence grows with the size of her wardrobe and her wigs, a tower of powder and ornamentation that does little to fill the gaps in her loneliness. Even Marie’s hair turns a pale pink.
Then, as suddenly as they were there, the pinks and greens shift into black, and it’s here that Coppola’s choices become bold, rather than just her colours. On release the film was called frivolous, existing in the paper-thin world of the French nobility and neglecting life outside the palace walls; but it’s called Marie Antoinette, not The People of France circa 1789, and Coppola keeps blowing the bubble until it bursts. The bravery is in turning her candyfloss world dark, reminding her audience that no one, including Marie, is going to get out of this alive.
There is a pathos in Marie Antoinette that was missed by most audiences on release. Like most of Coppola’s work, what can seem shallow on first watch reveals itself on a second, third or fourth; the isolation of life in world that values you little and cares even less. Marie is lonely, and so is her film. Behind the aimless, fumbling mumblecore ideals, Coppola – and, by extension, Marie Antoinette – have something to say; but much like the life of a woman in 18th-century France, it seems that no one has been listening. Ten years (or perhaps 227) later, Marie Antoinette can speak for herself.