Marie Antoinette sets up its playfulness and colour palette from its opening image. The notorious French queen, who did not actually declare “Let them eat cake”, dips a finger into a multi-layered pink confection and gives the camera a knowing smile.
There’s cake and plenty more to feast on in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, a tale of the 18th century via the 21st. A historical biopic only in name despite its period detailing, Marie Antoinette is stacked with anachronistic songs that gives sequences the feel of music videos, American and British accents, and a revisionist take on a vilified figure. The film is available for streaming on Netflix.
Well into the age of democracy, portraits of monarchs continue to be popular. The Netflix series The Crown, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and her brood, has been roiled by questions of authenticity. Coppola’s movie is an instance of the tendency to project contemporary concerns and stylistic flourishes onto events that took place centuries ago.
Coppola based her screenplay on British writer Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey, a sympathetic portrayal of the deeply reviled queen who was guillotined along with her husband during the French Revolution. Coppola’s poor-little-rich-girl portrayal is poised between empathy for her heroine and a mildly satirical view of the French court’s addiction to decadence.
Austrian princess Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is 14 when she marries the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) and moves to the Palace of Versailles. Marie Antoinette finds that she stumbled into a 17th-century version of Prom Night. The courtiers turn up their noses at the adolescent queen, sneering at her guileless manner and her inability to pop out heirs from the get-go.
There’s the delicate matter of a marriage that stays unconsummated for years. The oafish Louis XVI is on a permanent first-date basis with his inexperienced wife. Marie Antoinette eventually finds her feet, filling her days with parties, gambling, wig changes and an affair with the handsome soldier Axel von Fersen (Jamie Dornan).
Luxury abounds – the movie was shot at the actual Palace of Versailles – but never overwhelms. Coppola keeps dialogue to a minimum, allowing the senses to luxuriate in Lance Acord’s sensuous soft lighting and the ethereal quality that marks Marie Antoinette’s dream-like journey. Milena Canonero’s carefully colour-coded costumes are among the best you will ever see in a period film.
The narrative is as irreverent about the conventions of the historical drama as it is attentive to the fashions of the time. If you’re looking for a film that provides a rigorous counter-narrative to the perception of Marie Antoinette is a spendthrift ruler, this isn’t it. But as an impressionistic study of a misunderstood proto-celebrity who combated hedonism with hostility, Coppola’s film is on the money.
Giddy is the head that wears the crown in Marie Antoinette. If the French queen reminds some viewers of Princess Diana, whose terrible marriage is the subject of the latest season of The Crown, it’s probably a coincidence.
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