Understanding the Woman Behind the Cake: “Marie Antoinette” (2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Writer: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Asia Argento, Rose Byrne

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image via Amazon

“Let them eat cake!”

This is probably what comes to mind for most people when they hear the name Marie-Antoinette. It is the line she is most famous for, but something historians claim she never said. Sofia Coppola’s brilliant take on period piece drama illustrates the rise and fall of one of France’s most controversial royal figures. Kirsten Dunst stars as Marie-Antoinette, the ill-fated queen who became the Dauphine of France in 1770 at the age of 14. Coppola shows us everything that fashioned her into a painted peacock, as well as everything that made her human.

The youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I, she was promised in marriage to France’s future king, Louis XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman. Her mother’s regal narration explains why the match is necessary, and how important her union is to Austria. In order to fulfill her duty to her homeland, Marie-Antoinette must cast off all of her belongings, down to her skivvies and her favorite pug, in favor of new French possessions before crossing the border into France. Coppola’s powerful shot of her emerging from the changing tent serves to highlight her transformation.

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Several modern elements have been injected into this historical biopic, including music by The Cure, and teenage jargon you would expect from a 14-year-old girl in 2006 rather than 1770. While some criticized this approach, I enjoyed it. It caught me off guard to hear “Natural’s not in it” by Gang of Four during the opening credits. While the song plays, we see a brief shot of Dunst sprawled out on an 18th century tufted fainting couch surrounded by cakes and pastries. The shot shows what is naturally assumed to be a typical day in the life of Marie-Antionette, but it has a modern edge that says, “This is going to be different than what you are used to.”

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image via The New York Times

Coppola had complete access to the Palace of Versailles during filming. Her use of the palace shots are gorgeous and highlight the splendor of French royal life. From balls and parties, to simply eating breakfast with the family, we are shown that every occasion in the palace is regulated by tradition. The rigorous rituals that Marie is subjected to border on lunacy. In one scene, the Comptess de Noailles (Judy Davis) explains that the highest ranking woman in the room is the one who gets to dress the Dauphine. As women enter her bedchamber, the Comptess announces the higher ranking court member who then takes over for the last. Marie is standing by her bed, covering her nakedness with her arms, flabbergasted by the ceremony of it all. When she points this out, Noailles responds, “This is Versailles.”

Coppola takes us on a tonal journey that is guided by the light and colors on the screen. In the beginning of the film, we are bombarded with pinks and blues, with luscious fabrics threatening to burst forth through the television screen and engulf us in the lavishness of her existence. After the birth of her first child, Marie’s outlook begins to change, and so does the scenery. Natural light and gentle colors accentuate her peacefulness as she has finally fulfilled her duty as queen (partially, at least) and bore a child for Louis XVI. The shots at Le Petit Trianon, Marie-Antoinette’s secluded personal villa gifted to her by the king, show us just how far removed she was from the common people. The scenes gradually darken as we move closer in time to the French Revolution, coinciding with Marie’s emotional maturation.

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France’s doomed queen became the poster child for lazy self-indulgent monarchs. While Marie-Antoinette was certainly out of touch with reality, Coppola does her best to show us she was a product of her time and surroundings. This is explored in depth as we see her adapt to her environment after initially being ostracised by members of the court. She was brought up to value charm and splendor only to have that used against her when the reformists came knocking. She was completely oblivious to the dire political strife engulfing the country at the height of her and Louis XVI’s reign. Together, Coppola, Dunst, and Schwartzman created a visual experience that shows the awkwardness, gaiety, and tragedy of the lives of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Coppola has succeeded in telling a tale that is so well rounded we are left stunned and depressed at the plight of this monarchy.