Why Marie Antoinette Is Really Mean Girls, Versailles Edition

According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism remains a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Refinery29’s Writing Critics’ Wrongs is an attempt to rectify that oversight. Over the course of this project, our female movie critic will be taking another look at movies that have had a major cultural impact, from rom-coms to Oscar-winners, to Oscar-winning rom-coms. For too long, women have been excluded from the conversation about the movies we love, or hate, or somewhere in between. It's time for a rewrite.
When Marie Antoinette, director Sofia Coppola’s much-anticipated follow-up to Lost In Translation, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, it was booed — literally, and in reviews. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle called out the “handsome style piece” for lacking “wit or real significance.” Stephen Witty of the Newark Star-Ledger dismissed it as “dazed and confused,” noting that “it feels like a teenager's diary, read aloud over some awesome mixtape.” Brian Holcomb of CinemaBlend compared the story to that of “Paris Hilton if she were to be married off to an impotent French Prince instead of dating meatheads armed with camcorders.”
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The reviews aren’t evenly split by gender. Some men hated Marie Antoinette, but some loved it. Roger Ebert, for example, praised the film’s “fragile magic” and “romantic and tragic poignancy.” The same goes for women. Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly called it the “work of a mature filmmaker who has identified and developed a new cinematic vocabulary to describe a new breed of post-post post feminist woman,” while Joanne Kaufman of the Wall Street Journal wrote that it was “ultimately as substantial as a bonbon.”
Still, the overall criticism directed at the film seems to be focused on the idea that it lacks substance, a barb so often used to dismiss teenage girls. Which is ironic, given that this is precisely what the film is about.
That Marie Antoinette has become a cult classic for teenage girls is no surprise. The film arguably created millennial pink, launched a nationwide, still-going-strong macaron trend, and became the inspiration for countless Pinterest party mood boards. It’s a film about a stylish historical figure that doesn’t feel like one — a relatable fantasy of wealth and privilege. Marie Antoinette isn’t a biopic, concerned with dry historical facts, speeches or big events. It’s a highly personal filmwhich takes us into the very limited universe of a very young woman forced to play a very public role, gorgeously laying forth the trappings of luxury for the audience to revel in, until we, like the doomed French queen, realise that it’s nothing more than a gilded cage.
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But most of all, it’s a movie about being a teenage girl.
Marie Antoinette takes on the (low) expectations we have of young women, and the pressure to conform to standards they’ll eventually be condemned for. Think of Versailles as a high school. Marie Antoinette (Coppola muse Kirsten Dunst) is the new girl in town, the shy but pretty blonde who has grown up abroad (in Austria). She’s sent by her mother, the domineering Empress Maria Theresa (Marianne Faithfull — herself a former major It Girl), to seal an alliance between the Holy Roman Empire and France by marriage. Her intended, Louis-August (Jason Schwartzman), current dauphin of France and future King Louis XVI, is the 18th century equivalent of a shy A/V nerd, and completely incapable of standing up for his new bride in a court of gossips and mean girls.
Speaking of Mean Girls — Tina Fey’s seminal high school comedy precedes Marie Antoinette by two years, and although I would bet a lot of money that Coppola wouldn’t cite Fey or the Mark Water-directed film as an influence, there are echoes of its themes throughout. Just think of the way King Louis XV’s (Rip Torn) daughters, Victoire (Molly Shannon) and Sophie (Shirley Henderson) treat Marie Antoinette, smiling and inviting her to tea while calling her a “german spy” behind her back. And has there ever been anything so Regina George as when Marie Antoinette refuses to acknowledge the King’s mistress, Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), knowing well full well that royal etiquette dictates she cannot speak to her unless spoken to first?
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Being a teenage girl is a lonely pursuit, and Coppola masterfully weaves quiet scenes of despair (Marie Antoinette sobbing after her sister-in-law gives birth to a boy, while she and her husband have yet to have sex, despite having been married for months) with montages of wild abandon and spending, candy-coloured Manolo Blahniks and mountains of Laduree macarons. (This scene gives a whole new meaning to “On Wednesdays we wear pink.”) Still, even in the throes of lavish partying, there’s a sense of emptiness, of a vapid existence that’s slowly losing its sheen. Marie Antoinette, at first bewildered by the rules and conventions of the French court, soon becomes its master, leading fashion, gossip and bon gout — while still claiming to care about none of it. Performance, after all, is a key component of popularity.
Kirsten Dunst plays this duality beautifully. You get the sense that her Marie Antoinette actually could be down-to-earth, if society had ever required her to land there. But as the queen, she’s expected to shine — be better, prettier, more stylish, more vivacious — until she’s vilified for it. When she retreats to the Petit Trianon, her small palace on the outskirts of Versailles, it’s to a very fake version of pastoral life, complete with a picturesque village and gauzy peasant dresses made of a linen that would probably cost them a lifetime of salaries. It’s the equivalent of today’s farmhouse chic — sanitised and quaint, without any of the petty bothers of actually running a farm. And yet it’s still a far cry from what Marie Antoinette is best remembered for: reportedly dismissing stories of the starving French populace with a pithy “Let them eat cake.” (A claim she dismisses as preposterous in the film. “I would never say that!”)
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Coppola’s merging of past and present is a device used throughout the film, from the stray pair of pink Converse concealed among a row of heeled period shoes, to the heavily 1980s influenced soundtrack that pairs The Cure's "Plainsong" with King Louis XVI's 1774 coronation. Royalty, she seems to say, is a vibe. It’s a lifestyle, not a title — be it 18th century France or 1987 Los Angeles. You may not have access to Versailles, but you know exactly what it’s like to be there.
Her casting choices reflect this ethos: while a traditional period film would seek to cast based on lookalikes or impersonations, Coppola isn’t interested in that. Jason Schwartzman’s Louis August isn’t so much a historically accurate representation based on what we know about Louis XVI as he is a stand-in for highly awkward yet privileged young men thrust in situations out of their control. Louis was born to play a role he doesn’t want or even know how to play. And though it might be seen as nepotism (Schwartzman is Coppola’s cousin), Schwartzman occupies the part with a sad clown grace that eventually leads to quiet resolve.
In fact, the relationship between Louis and Marie Antoinette is one of the most interesting in the film: their lack of sexual chemistry (it takes them 7 years to consummate their marriage, mostly due to inexperience and an inability to talk about it) doesn’t negate a touching platonic relationship between two outsiders who would really rather be anywhere else. (Bonus: As a result, we get the treat of a young Jamie Dornan as Count Axel von Fersen, the queen's Swedish lover.) The film also explores the crucial role that female friendships play in a young woman’s life, often occupying far more importance than romantic ones. In fact, one of the accusations that condemned the real Marie Antoinette was that she was rumoured to have intimate relationships with two of her best friends, the Princesse de Lamballe (Mary Nighy) and the Duchesse de Polignac (a sparkling young Rose Byrne).
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The film has its flaws. The dialogue is stilted (although how refreshing it is to not to have actors pretend to have an accent they do not have), and Coppola sometimes fails to live by her decision to filter events through Marie Antoinette’s limited and sheltered perspective. Brief scenes of King Louis discussing France’s financial aid to the revolution in America are an injection of reality more jarring than informative given the claustrophobic nature of the protagonist’s existence. What’s more, given the rare access Coppola had as the first director to be allowed to film on location in Versailles, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have the palace play more of a role — especially since the royal family almost never leaves it. The shots of Versailles feel oddly tangential, like any other set — the only comprehensive interior shots we get are at the end, once the family has been dragged off by the revolutionary mob, and by then, the palace, like its residents is a shell of its former glory. That would carry a much bigger gut-punch had we been made to care about it before.
And of course, there’s the fact that the film’s assumed relatability is based on a very narrow and highly privileged interpretation of the teenage experience. Coppola has faced this type of criticism with nearly all of her films — most recently for The Beguiled — which seem unconcerned with any experience beyond that of rich, white women. Granted, in this case, white privilege is period-accurate, but we’ve already established that Coppola doesn’t care much about that. If she really wanted to transgress genre boundaries, ca0sting actors of colour in traditionally white roles could have been a more innovative and inclusive way to go about it.
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It’s hard to talk about Marie Antoinette without putting it in the context of the time. Not Ancien Régime France, but rather 2006 Hollywood celebrity culture. This was heyday of Paris Hilton, and pre-meltdown Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, whose wild partying was captured by a rabid paparazzi who chastised their behaviour while asking for more. Young women who rose to fame at a young age, acting the way society appeared to want them to behave, and then being torn apart — sound familiar?
But in a way, Coppola falls into the same trap her sequestered, narcissistic heroine does. The film certainly criticises that navel-gazing, Us Weekly culture and lifestyle, but it also fetishises it. Sure, that constant flow of champagne gives us a headache after a while, but in a “poor little rich girl” way. Left to their own devices – barring, you know, a revolution – Marie Antoinette and her friends would have continued living like this forever, sometimes enjoying it, and sometimes wishing for a more fulfilling way of life. And yet, by choosing to close the film with the revolutionary narrative, rather than cutting off (sorry, sorry) beforehand, Coppola is reminding us (or warning us) that a wind of change is indeed here at last. But we’re not sure what her ultimate intent here is – and that ambivalence is frustrating rather than intriguing.
In the end, perhaps we’re not supposed to just root for Marie Antoinette, but also for the crowd that ultimately beheads her. Regina George too, had her comeuppance.
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