That Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette premiered to jeers in Cannes is, in hindsight, entirely unsurprising. The film, an 80s soundtracked pastel confection, is an exoneration of perhaps French history’s most despised figure, starring the Palace of Versailles, an all-American it-girl, and a foreign director who rose to prominence on her family name. Labelled by the notoriously rowdy French critics as vapid, ludicrous, and misguided, the film is often seen as Coppola’s grand failure.
But the film’s iconoclastic treatment of the conventions of historical drama is fundamental to its frothy allure. In the opening frames, as the Queen nibbles cake, she turns and stares into camera. We’re granted an audience, invited to revel in the spectacle. Coppola, through her protagonist, holds her critics in contempt, the simple glare daring them to resist the ensuing revelry. We’re made complicit in Antoinette’s antics.
But for all the film’s angst and art-direction, Coppola unearths worthwhile ideas in her sympathetic take on Antoinette’s legend. Her feminine gaze challenges Versailles’ social rigidity. She favours a slight script, instead expressing herself through image and tone, locating within them criticisms of patriarchy, fame and historiography. The film feels personal, an inside look at the starlet-making machine which brought scathing personal attacks to both Coppola and her star. Looking back, the casting seems prescient, the film coming at the end of Kirsten Dunst’s wave as A-list teen-queen, when drunken paparazzi shots threatened to dethrone her.
Coppola can be guilty of lazy direction, as in The Bling Ring and debatably Somewhere, but this is not the case here. Marie Antoinette is shallow, but its surfaces are exquisitely detailed.