Is Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” saved by the soundtrack?

The first time I saw the trailer for Sofia Coppola’s third movie, which featured New Order’s “Age of Consent” . . . the word you’re looking for is “stoked.” I watched the movie several times when it came out. Indeed, the subject of my first grad school conference presentation (originally developed as a term paper) was about the use of popular music in Coppola’s movies and paid particular attention to her third feature. 

Some friends at the time dismissed the song selection as evidence that this was to be Coppola’s A Knight’s Tale. To me, this suggested short-sightedness (short-hearedness?). While I wasn’t sure whether the movie was going to be good so much as pretty, I knew the meaning of this biopic on Marie Antoinette would be gleaned from the music. Selecting a song about coming of age and its desperate, doomed implications from a band who, at the time of the song’s recording, had reformed after the recent loss of their young lead singer to suicide at the dawn of the Reagan/Thatcher era? Using it to frame the inevitable tragedy of a young woman who unknowingly inherited a fallen regime? Pitch perfect, if you ask me. You can say what you want about Coppola’s movies, but she knows how to pick a song. Or at least she knows how to pick a song selector, in this case music supervisor Brian Reitzell, to clear some post-punk classics from her youth.  

The movie itself appears apolitical, as would seem appropriate as it focuses on a clueless and ridiculously wealthy group of young people who have no idea what kind of tragedy they’re about to inherit after generations of neglect. The audience, on the other hand, know Marie Antoinette’s life will end at the hands of righteously pissed poor French people who cut off her head. Some characters clue others in on the contentious relationships France has with itself, Austria, Poland, and a set of colonies that was becoming the United States. Most people are too busy buying shoes, throwing parties, trying to extend the family line, or having affairs. 

The musical selections serve to politicize the movie. The deliberate use of anachronism intrigued me, particularly when creating analogues between the political unrest of pre-Revolutionary France and England’s recessionary 70s and the early days of Thatcher’s reign. Class distinctions aside, it’s easy to draw connections between the unseen revolutionaries and the somewhat subcultural art school punks and New Romantics, many of whom drew from this era in their own work. Thus, I was thrilled that Coppola’s imagining of Versailles last days included Adam Ant, Siouxsie Sioux, Bow Wow Wow, and Converse sneakers. 

Take the opening sequence as an example. The movie begins with an opening credit sequence accompanied by “Natural’s Not In It” from once-anti-capital post-punk band Gang of Four. The song indicts the empty pleasures of consumerism. The screen is black, with personnel credits appearing in hot pink. Only one vignette is shown during this part of the movie. It is of the young queen complying with the mythology of the frivolous heiress. In this scene, she lazes while an attendant puts on her shoe. She absent-mindledly runs a finger across an elaboratedly iced cake, licks off her treat, and addresses the camera with a decided air of self-satisfaction. Let them eat cake off my finger, bitches. 

In tribute to my friend Kit, who could watch this scene on a loop; image courtesy of tinkersdamn.wordpress.com

 

Unfortunately, Gang of Four sold out big time. Did anyone see catch reunion tour? I didn’t, but I heard they charged $20 for merch. Upon hearing this news, I let out of a sigh, looked up, and nodded to irony’s unseen deity. 

There are several moments where post-punk is used. One scene uses a cover song to highlight the sexy but empty promises of commodity fetish from a pre-fab band with a pre-teen girl singer who was marketed as sexually available by their Svengali. Another scene highlights the spoils of youth during moments of celebration with a song performed by a band that were supposed to be Joy Division but became New Order. The scene at a masked ball suggests a Western mindset that criticizes the packaging of girls like consumer goods with a song that has racist assumptions about Eastern traditions from a female punk who played with fascist and Orientalist imagery. The last scene seems to endorse the belief that sexual awakening, like many white people’s romantic notions of a monolithic Native American culture, is primitive and innate. Yowza. Of course, if you don’t know these songs you may lose these layers of interpretation. Thus Coppola’s movie demands that you listen as well as look for meaning.     

Coppola also does a good job stealing from other people’s movies. The jump cuts suggest indebtedness to the French New Wave and the mise-en-scène recalls Barry Lyndon and The Leopard. But musical cues suggest other cinematic references. Witness Antoinette’s morning routine, which is shown three times during the movie. It’s scored by Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto alla rustica,” originally composed in the early 1730s.  These scenes are supposed to convey the repititious and dehumanizing nature of her existence. The song is used the same way in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, except instead of playing as a young heiress gets dressed in front of the female members of the court, it scores a director-choreographer pounding Dexedrine and Alka-Seltzer.   

Coppola hedged her bets by casting Steve Coogan, perhaps because of his performance as Factory Records impresario/post-punk godfather Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People, as the queen’s long-suffering advisor who knows Versailles, like Rome, is about to fall. It could also be argued that Marianne Faithfull serves a similar function in her role as Antoinette’s mother Maria Theresa. Not only did she inherit a matrialineal heritage of Austrian nobility, but she’s also a hardened, toughened relic of the swingin’ Sixties and a survivor of the sexism behind its free love ideals.  

Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa; image courtesy of artandmylife.wordpress.com

 

This movie could’ve been really great. It sets out to do something fresh and modern with period pieces, deliberately disorienting the viewer with moments of anachronism, not only in music, but also in dialogue, characterization, and costuming. Coppola said the intent of these moments is to humanize the people behind this history, some perhaps interpretting the movie to be autobiographical. But I don’t think Coppola ever fully humanizes her subject. I also don’t believe the movie is really supposed to be about her, her jet-set life, or the ridicule she received for her performance as Mary Corleone in the final installment of her father’s Godfather series. Though if you want to read Marie Antoinette as Coppola’s attempt at a biopic, she does cast her boyfriend Thomas Mars in the movie, whose band seranades the young queen. 

Coppola does accomplish something far more interesting here: by distorting place and time to such an extreme, she obliterates the idea that period pictures adapted from historical biographies ever attempt to be historically accurate. Indeed, there is no real history. The past then becomes open to interpretation, with no reading a true, definitive version. Indeed, history as a discipline becomes an unreliable narrator. 

But the movie never quite works for me as a text so much as a theoretical exercise. 

I hate to blame the success of a project on one person, but Coppola made was unwise in casting Kirsten Dunst. Past her performances in Little Women, The Virgin Suicides, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and what I’m told is a noteworthy turn in Interview With a Vampire, Dunst is a limited actress. I used to think that Dunst was believable in her portrayal of the young dauphine and that, once she had to play the queen of France and had to demonstrate (or believe she was demonstrating) emotional maturity, I was kicked out of the text. This opinion presents an interesting challenge, which I’d pose to Kristen at Act Your Age: what does it mean when an adult actress can convince an audience that she’s 14 but not 30? Also, I think the movie should end once Marie Antoinette is crowned. By stretching on into her adult years and stopping short of her death, the movie no longer seeks to revise the period biopic and instead becomes one. 

But upon review, I find that I don’t buy Dunst at all. She gives a servicable performance if Coppola set out to turn a magazine photo shoot into a movie, an argument I remember my friend Karin making. The movie could be so much more than Nylon‘s take on Versailles, but Dunst can carry it. I don’t buy her losing her dog, having a baby, embarking on a torrid affair, or saying goodbye to the palace and her life. I also never believe the complex angst she’s supposed to be feeling about her sham marriage to late-bloomer Louis XVI (played by Jason Schwartzman) or all of the ridiculous expectations placed upon her narrow shoulders. 

This is about as close as Dunst gets to inner turmoil; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

 

One scene completely kicks me out of the movie. Leading into the buyer’s remorse porn of the “I Want Candy” montage, the dauphine breaks down and decides to rebel against the court by turning spending sprees into a lifestyle. This could be a very powerful moment in an ornately feminine movie about one of the most maligned and notoriously well-appointed female figures in European history. The camera is uncomfortably close to the subject, peering at her convulsing face and heaving chest with voyeuristic intent. This could be an ugly scene with a decidedly feminist subtext in line with Linda Williams’s reading on the abject qualities of melodrama, horror, and pornography in her seminal essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Except there is nothing to see. Dunst provides no tears, no facial distortions, no gutteral sobs. It’s easily one of the prettiest and most detached fit of hysterics I’ve seen. 

It would seem that this is the performance Coppola wanted, and that Antoinette’s release comes from shopping. This also suggests that Antoinette can’t cry, and that her upbringing does not allow her the ability to lose composure. But I have to wonder if it would be easier to empathize with a character played by someone who is acting instead of modeling. For a movie that attempts to humanize a villified historical subject, this scene actually suggests that she’s inhuman. Perhaps it’s because she’s a theory and not a person. And if that person isn’t presented as complex, at least the theories that cultivate her existence are a minefield.

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7 comments

  1. Kit

    When I saw the screen grab from the credits sequence, I thought to myself, “I’m going to make a comment about how I could watch those few minutes on an endless loop!” Awesome.

    It seems like those moments do a lot of the intellectual work (that you unpacked so deftly) of the sound-image montage used throughout the film – and it really packs a punch. Afterward, I’m not really sure what else there is to say in a big way, so it can get repetitious. Or maybe I think that the anachronism between the soundtrack and the film’s genre is so effective in it’s first iteration because there is so little narrative pull at that moment (thus the collision between sound and image is the primary focus of that moment’s meaning). I might argue that the narrative of a rich party girl is pretty boring (and the idea of Marie Antoinette as a pseudo-contemporary rich party girl might be even more boring) – and (if I remember correctly) that’s where the film’s focus goes as the narrative accumulates. (This isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I did, for the most part.) That said, I’m still not sure why my reaction to the credits is so different to my reaction to the film as a whole: your post really makes me want to revisit the film!

    Lastly, I agree that one of the film’s major strengths is its revisions of period piece conventions (something that I’ve been thinking about a bit as Oscars loom and one of my favorite 2009 period pieces, Inglorious Basterds – another to rework conventions in a very appealing way, is nominated for awards.)

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks for your comment, Kit. You should rewatch the movie. Or just the opening credits. If we lived near each other, I’d have us watch it together and eat cake.

      No no. Watch the whole thing. The musical moments are delightful. It makes me so happy how seamlessly Aphex Twin’s work on Drukqs fits in with the period. I couldn’t find it online, but I also like the post-ball carriage ride set to Bow Wow Wow’s “Fools Rush In.” I love how strained and defiantly unprofessional Annabella Lwin’s voice is in that song. Sure it’s paired with a scene when Marie Antoinette is all giggly about her first encounter with Count Fersen. But it conveys the excitement about meeting someone new and shiny at a party. Again, Coppola knows how to put interesting music in her movies.

      I completely agree with you about how the rich-girl narrative is pretty boring. It seems like there was some post-feminist danger of recasting Marie Antoinette as a sympathetic version of Paris Hilton and those celebutantes at the time. Also, the Louis XVI Cribs featurette on the DVD is a little on-the-nose (if not masterfully edited to look just like an episode of the show).

      That said, the people I love in the movie are the bit players. Judy Davis’s Comtesse de Noailles is comic gold. Asia Argento’s Madame du Barry has a MONKEY. Rose Byrne’s Duchesse de Polignac says the most ridiculous, faux-important bullshit (especially when she’s visiting Le Petit Trianon, which seems like the kind of monied, new age feelgoodery that Gwenyth Paltrow types frequent). And I could watch an entire movie about Aunt Victoire and Sophie, played by Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson (also in 24-Hour Party People). As they’re totally part of this world, I wonder if they also provide commentary on class and thus make this world seem less sympathetically rendered.

      Also, yes to more period piece revisions! I have to wait for Inglorious Basterds, as there’s a hella-long wait on Netflix right now and I may have to rent it elsewhere. This is also reminding me that I still haven’t seen Jane Campion’s Bright Star, which I’ve heard recasts Fanny Brawne as a punk fashionista. And if you haven’t read Stella Bruzzi’s wonderful book Undressing Cinema, it’ll really get you thinking about how clothes convey and undermine a sense of place and time in film.

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  3. Mars

    Good analysis but I would like to note that Kirsten Dunst DOES cry during the “breakdown” scene. You just have to look hard to see it because her foundation is extremely cakey.

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