Review by: Jemma Harbot
Marie Antoinette (2006), written and directed by Sofia Coppola, documents the life of the Archduchess of Austria.
The film begins with her departure from Austria in 1770 and ends with the March on Versailles in 1789. It is based upon Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001), which was well received academically and popularly. Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchel (in Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens, 2009) suggest that contemporary perceptions of Marie Antoinette are usually overshadowed by knowledge of her execution. Her gruesome and tragic end hangs over her life before the French Revolution almost as if the two are grossly intertwined. In Marie Antoinette and the Ghost of the French Revolution (2007), Alexander Zevin criticises the film for not ending at Marie Antoinette’s execution. Zevin views it as out of context with the French Revolution claiming that this is because Coppola wanted Marie Antoinette to be likeable. Fraser believed the treatment of the French monarchy in the Revolution was too brutal and, as a result, portrays Marie Antoinette as a victim in her biography. Edmund Burke thought the same in the eighteenth century.
Yet, the depiction of Marie Antoinette in the film as separate to the Revolution is hardly surprising. She lived a life separate to the Revolution and I think chiefly in ignorance of public opinion. She lived in a bubble of ignorance or a beautiful cage (the appropriate analogy depends on where one’s sympathies lie). Whether this makes her more likeable I cannot say. Marie Antoinette was a woman who never saw the sea. How can one assume that she had an understanding of how the French masses felt and lived? Similarly, the queen in the film is only an interpretation, a character who looks like Kirsten Dunst, speaks in American English and carries herself in a twenty-first century way. Nobody can argue that this is accurate to the Austrian-born Marie Antoinette who spoke French in the years the film depicts.
Even if a French-speaking Austrian actress took on the role it would still remain ahistorical. This is simply because the Marie Antoinette in the film and even the one portrayed in Fraser’s biography is a fictitious character and not the real Marie Antoinette (Ford & Mitchel, p.213). Nobody knows who the real queen was and one can presume that even in eighteenth-century France few knew the real queen. The film has been labelled ahistorical by Ford & Mitchel (p.211-2), but we cannot assess a film as a historical source. Many phrases used in the film are truthful to historical accounts but were obviously not spoken in American English. The use of modern music, such as Bow Wow Wow‘s ‘I Want Candy’, further highlights the inaccuracy of the film.
Yet as has been pointed out by many contemporaries to the film, this historical drama is not typical because it is also a teen flick. Like to Versailles: Countdown to Revolution, Marie Antoinette highlights modern day ‘celebrity culture’ (Ford & Mitchel, p.210) with Marie Antoinette as a modern day party girl, staying up late, drinking and following (or in this case setting) fashion trends. This is done intentionally to make the film relatable to a contemporary audience.
Despite the ahistorical language and interpretative characters, the film does illuminate important realities in Marie Antoinette’s life. Notably, the pressure from her mother and brother to serve Austrian interests in France, her lack of political knowledge and education, her Austrian means of carrying herself, and the pomp and ceremony of the Ancien Régime. The film is not a historical document but an interpretation of the myth of Marie Antoinette. It makes her human and relatable and, therefore, a figure of interest to a contemporary audience.
- Elizabeth A. Ford & Deborah C. Mitchel, Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens (2009).
- Amanda Foreman ‘Unfit for a queen’ The Guardian Online (2001), < http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jun/17/biography.artsandhumanities> , accessed: 19th November 2015.
- Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001).
- Dena Goodman (ed.), Marie Antoinette: Writing on the Body of a Queen (2003).
- Francine du Plessix Gray, ‘It’s Not So Good to Be the Queen’, The New York Times Online (2001) <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/23/books/it-s-not-so-good-to-be-the-queen.html?pagewanted=all>, accessed: 19th November 2015.
- Hazel Mills (Cambridge), ‘Guillotined by history: Marie Antoinette, Antonia Fraser’ The Guardian Online (2001)< http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jul/14/biography.highereducation>, accessed: 19th November 2015.
- John Rogister, ‘Marie Antoinette’, History Today Online (n.d.), <http://www.historytoday.com/john-rogister/marie-antoinette> accessed: 19th November 2015.
- Alexander Zevin, ‘Marie Antoinette and the Ghosts of the French Revolution’, Cinéaste 32.2 (2007): 32–35.