An adroit commentary on desire and the loneliness of being female in a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you, Sofia Coppola’s insightful film reveals little about the politics of the period. This is because we are entirely within Marie’s world. And this world is fully contained within Versailles, which shuts out all external reality. It is a self-governing architectural island, much like Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu – where politics, reality and poverty have no place.
All of Coppola’s films, and this one most of all, use locations to define the lives of the characters. She shows us a society as single-mindedly devoted to the care and feeding of Marie Antoinette, as a beehive centers on its queen. Then there is the border scene. This would be the site for the ‘official handover’. Marie is stopped, stripped and searched to ascertain, brutally, if she is indeed a virgin and, for that matter, a female. It reminds the tire-kicker in me of the scene in von Sternberg’s “The Scarlett Empress” where Catherine arrives at the court of the Czar and the royal physician immediately crawls under her skirt to check her royal plumbing. They even confiscate her beloved dogs, but tell her, “You can have as many French dogs as you like.”
Coppola also experiments with a sort of contemporary pop overlay – hit songs, incongruous dialogue, jarring intrusions of the Now upon the Then. But no one ever lives as Then. It is always Now. Many characters in historical films seem somehow aware that they are living in the past. Marie seems to think she is a teenager living in the present, which of course she is. And the contemporary pop references invite the audience to share her present with theirs.
Take, for example, the sort of subtle inclusion of Chuck Taylor sneakers in Marie’s dressing room. Without words, we learn that all children are, on some level, the same. As the film progresses, everyone in the audience knows that Marie Antoinette is headed for a beheading. Coppola brilliantly sidesteps the gruesome details by employing light, sound and a haunting balcony to portray Marie’s death as a curtain call. Hired, essentially, to play a princess, she is a good trouper and faithful to her role. As she faces mortality, it is impossible to avoid thoughts of Diana, Princess of Wales.
What’s particularly interesting is that it is not necessary to know anything about Marie Antoinette to enjoy this film. Some of what we think we know is mistaken. But, paradoxically, the more you know about her, the more you may learn. Coppola’s oblique and anachronistic point of view shifts the balance away from realism and into an act of empathy for a girl swept up by events that leave her without personal choices. Before she was a queen, before she was a pawn, Marie was a 14-year old girl taken from her home, stripped bare and examined like so much horseflesh. It is astonishing with what indifference for her feelings the court aristocracy uses her for its pleasure, and in killing her.disposes of its guilt.