“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.” – Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst)
Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” rings out over montages of silk shoes, colorful pastries and flowing champagne in one of the most indulgent sequences of Marie Antoinette. That’s a perfect way to describe director Sofia Coppola’s take of the infamous queen — she and her audiences want the sweets, but none of the toothaches that follow.
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is the typical high school-aged girl, but thrown into the pressure cooker of French royalty. Married to King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), Marie fills her time with gossip, parties and rampant materialism that keeps her ahead of her enemies and beloved by merchants across the country. Unfortunately, the world outside Versailles is far less enchanted by her, but she’ll never tell as she conducts elicit affairs and throws lavish dinners.
The film begins darkly — Marie has to leave her family and dogs behind to marry the king of France, whom she’s never met. They meet, they marry and she’s thrown into a world full of disgustingly formal customs (her morning dressing routine, for example). But as much as her place in life is one of adulthood, Marie’s mindset is still that of a teenager, and Coppola uses this to her full advantage. The entire movie is based around hte idea that Marie wasn’t a greedy villainess, but rather an average teenager given everything and anything she wants except for excitement and purpose.
That’s why there’s very little context around what’s going on outside Versailles. Marie Antoinette has been criticized as sympathizing with the queen and forgetting the hardship her people faced during her reign. But as Coppola’s piece focuses on the lifestyle of the rich and regal, the audience is forced to stay tethered to Marie’s mindset. Like most 16-year-olds, she’s more concerned with the weekend’s party than with what’s going on in the rest of the country. Does that condone her behavior? Maybe, but Coppola doesn’t take it that far, either. The film ends as Marie says goodbye to Versailles after its takeover, not at her beheading.
Choosing that ending also keeps the film as decadent as possible — a sweet without the bitter following. Eye-popping color and modern rock-pop assail audiences, including purposeful anachronisms (a pair of lavender Converse high tops, for example), continue to classify Marie as a bubble gum high school student, not a leader.
Although criticized for its indulgence and lack of context, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a far more realistic look at the psyche of the infamous queen. It neither defends nor persecutes her with historical fact, but rather uses imagery to get audiences thinking they might have been just like the teen queen if given the chance. The director, in the spirit of her heroine, doesn’t ask us to treat her film as truth, but rather invites us to gratify ourselves with its beauty. In the vein of her heroine, she says through her direction, “Let them eat cake.”