You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

More Marie Antoinette

After an email exchange with a friend in which I stated the following:

> i saw the queen and marie antoinette as well–enjoyed the queen, and i admired sofia’s intentions in antoinette but didn’t think it really came to fruition–i understand that she wanted to show her to be completely isolated and oblivious but the way she did it i felt it amounted to little more than a statement that it’s great fun to be rich and why do the dirty plebes have to ruin our fun? i thought the queen did a much better job of showing an equally oblivious character because we also got to see what all the fuss was about among the commoners. just because a character is oblivious doesn’t mean the film should be, in my opinion, and sofia’s is. i honestly don’t think she has it in her to criticize the rich, at least not yet.

he then forwarded to me a review of the film by David Mendelsohn, saying that he seemed to share my opinion. And indeed, I loved it so much I must quote and link it. He says much more elegantly and forgivingly what I said so angrily. Sorry for the length of the quotes but it’s just so good I couldn’t cut it.

First, on her slapdash inclusion of historical events:

One of the two great problems of the film is the sense you often get that she’d done her homework rather too faithfully: the languid freshness and visual originality of many scenes that seem evocative of Marie Antoinette’s inner life stand in vivid contrast to the impression often given, as in so many film biographies, that the narrative is ticking off the big moments in the well-known life.

Here Coppola’s film falls apart, because her special gift is for conveying emotional and psychological states suggestively, allusively, and impressionistically, by means of collocations of images; she has less talent for telling a straightforward tale. The movie suffers when you feel, as you often do, that she’s read Fraser’s biography thoroughly and is dutifully reproducing incidents of her subject’s life. Do we really need the story, which Fraser tells in great detail and which Coppola obligingly includes here, of how the dying Louis XV was forced to send away his mistress, Mme du Barry, in order to receive communion on his deathbed? The episode, hastily sketched in and, I suspect, incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the sorry story of the awful death of the Bien-aimé, adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the film’s subject, and ends by being a confusing distraction.

So too many of the episodes taken from the latter parts of Antoinette’s life—which is to say, the part of her life that took place after the crisis that is of real interest to Coppola, which is the crisis of a young girl torn from her natural setting and forced to stay afloat, willy-nilly, in a strange and foreign place. Coppola’s apparent lack of interest in anything outside of the cocooned and photogenic private world of the doomed Queen is evident in the desultory quality of the many stilted moments designed to convey what’s going on in the world beyond Versailles—the kind of clanking scene in which someone says to the King at a meeting of his council, “The Americans are asking for help with their revolution,” or, worse, when we see someone rush up to the King and announce, “The Bastille has been stormed!”

The director tries to cover over her slapdash approach to history with some familiar technical tricks (there’s a little montage in which we see some portraits of the Queen bearing scribbled labels that say things like “Madame Deficit,” and so forth), but it seems an afterthought. Such moments are mere chron- ological signposts, and the film loses its appeal whenever we are forced to rush by them. Marie Antoinette would have succeeded better purely on formal terms if it had never attempted to include this material—if it had been what I suspect Coppola always wanted it to be, a reverie on what it might have been like to be the very young Marie Antoinette, rather than a straight account of her life. In the end, it’s too little of either.

And on Sofia’s own Marie Antoinette-ish obliviousness:

But then—and this is the second and fatal problem with Coppola’s movie— could you, should you really make a film about Marie Antoinette the victimized young woman as if she were the private person she apparently wished, at times, she’d been? There is something Marie Antoinette-ish about the director’s impatient disdain for the outside world, for the history that was going on all around her sensitive and troubled heroine. (And not just around her, but right in front of her: when the Estates General finally met in May 1789, it was at Versailles—the first great intrusion of the coming Revolution into that enclave—although you’d never guess as much from this movie.)

There’s nothing wrong with being interested in the inner life of a queen who was, in the end quite tragically, nothing more than the “average woman” to which the subtitle of Stefan Zweig’s 1932 biography alludes,[2] placed by fate in extraordinary circumstances. But this particular life, the rather ordinary personality whose contours Coppola is interested in delineating here—and which she does delineate so effectively at times—had an enormous impact on history, on real events and persons. That this was already clear to the Queen’s contemporaries is evident from the concerns about the young queen’s behavior expressed by Joseph—no slouch himself when it came to hectoring letters—which are, in hindsight, particularly significant. “In very truth I tremble for your happiness,” he wrote his sister, “seeing that in the long run things cannot go on like this…the revolution will be a cruel one, and perhaps of your own making.”

The provocative relationship between personality and history in the case of Marie Antoinette has indeed been clear to subsequent generations. Writing thirty years after the Revolution, the comtesse de La Tour du Pin, by then a fifty-year-old émigrée, who had been presented at court as a young woman and whose glamorous mother had been a lady-in-waiting to the Queen (“the queen liked my mother, she was always captivated by glitter and my mother was very much the rage”), ruminated on the inevitable lessons to be gleaned from the Queen’s life:

My earliest visit to Versailles was in 1781, when the first Dauphin was born. In later years, when listening to tales of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s sufferings and shame, my mind often went back to those days of her triumph. I was taken to watch the ball given for her by the Gardes du Corps in the Grande Salle de Spectacle at Versailles. She opened the ball with a young guardsman, wearing a blue dress strewn with sapphires and diamonds. She was young, beautiful and adored by all; she had just given France a Dauphin and it would have seemed to her inconceivable that the brilliant career on which she was launched could ever suffer a reverse. Yet she was already close to the abyss. The contrast provides much cause for reflection![3]

But the contrast has apparently provoked no such reflection in Coppola, who in her new film gives you, as it were, the dress but not the abyss. To be so unreflective, to want to make a film about Marie Antoinette that ignores who she was in history, seems shockingly naive, intellectually. It’s like wanting to make a film about what it’s like to be a starving artist and deciding to have your hero be the young Adolf Hitler.

And so Coppola’s movie, which works so hard and with such imagination to include in its portrait much that has been ignored, ends up leaving out much that cannot be ignored. Most egregiously, it fails completely to convey in any way why it was that this particular queen aroused the loathing of many in her country. You get absolutely no sense from this film of the immense hatred that was felt for the Queen as the years went by, as she was languishing in her unstructured muslin lévites among the soft pillows of the Petit Trianon, to which Coppola’s swooning camera gives an almost erotic allure. The irony is that this willed ignorance of the larger world disserves Coppola’s artistic and emotional purpose. If the director had gone into all this, she’d have only underscored some of her subject’s sympathetic qualities; for there’s little question that while she could make gross mistakes of judgment, nearly all of the calumnies heaped on Marie Antoinette, including the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace, were absurd and vicious misrepresentations, when not downright inventions.

The result of all this is a film that is ultimately, like its subject, horribly, fatally truncated. Stefan Zweig, a far more tart and critical biographer than Antonia Fraser, wrote of the Queen that “though but little inclined to reflection, she was quick of perception, her tendency being to judge all that happened in accordance with her immediate personal impressions—for she saw only the surface of things.” It would be unfair to say that Sofia Coppola sees only the surface of things— she sees a great deal more, sees what surfaces can be the reflections of, and renders what she sees with artful ingenuity—but in this film, at least, it’s as if she’s been so bewitched by the fabulous beauties of the world she has chosen to depict, the silks and satins and shoes and frosting on the bonbons everyone always seems to be eating, that she’s lost track of crucial events and the inescapable larger meaning of her subject’s life. It seemed significant to me that this movie ends on the day the royal family leaves Versailles for the last time, prisoners of the Revolution—as if Coppola couldn’t bring herself to imagine where it was that all of the indulgence, all of the escapism, that she’s so artfully presented led to in the end.

The final silent image in this movie, so filled as it is with striking and suggestive images, tells you more about Coppola, and perhaps our own historical moment, than it could possibly tell you about Marie Antoinette. It’s a mournful shot of the Queen’s state bedchamber at Versailles, ransacked by the revolutionary mob the night before the Queen and her family were forced to leave, its glittering chandeliers askew, its exquisite boiseries cracked and mangled. You’d never guess from this that men’s lives—those of the Queen’s guards—were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris. But Coppola forlornly catalogs only the ruined bric-a-brac. As with the teenaged girls for whom she has such sympathy, her worst imagination of disaster, it would seem, is a messy bedroom.

What He Said

Daniel Craig.jpg

The Bond franchise bores me but this one I will definitely see. Tonight. Meow.

UPDATE: Saw it. Tedious. Interminable. I left before the end. Even Daniel Craig’s hotness could not wake me up. My opinion remains that Bond movies are boring as shit.


1117 034.jpg

In case it is not obvious that is the White House in the background.


1117 010.jpg

Another Poor Little Rich Girl

I checked out The Queen the other night after hearing that it does much better than Marie Antoinette at depicting an isolated, oblivious monarch upon whom the real world intrudes. And it’s true, it gets right what Sofia got wrong. It intersperses scenes of her isolated existence in London and on the breathtakingly gorgeous grounds of Balmoral Castle with crowd scenes of the people voicing their growing displeasure. We get to see what all the fuss is about, and at the same time we see how isolated and out of touch the queen is. This is where Sofia fails. We never get to see the crowd or have any idea of what they are so angry about. And I completely understand that that is her intent, to show how isolated she was, but just because the character is isolated and oblivious does not mean the film should be. That is a mistake. To show none of it whatsoever, and to stop the film before we see any of her hardship, means the film sides fully with the Queen and makes the starving peasants’ anger out to be much ado about nothing. You end up with a film that says nothing more than “It’s great fun to be a rich, beautiful teenager!”

The Queen, however, is much more satisfying because we get plenty of evidence that what she is doing is wrong. And we watch her eventually realize this. And the film still remains a compassionate portrayal of an oblivious character who in some ways remains oblivious to the end. She ultimately gives in and acknowledges the real world, but also says in the end “I don’t think I will ever understand what happened this week.” And that’s fine. We don’t hate her for that, we understand.

But while I thoroughly enjoyed The Queen, it’s no work of art. It does not aspire to art. It’s just a very good story, a well-written and wonderfully acted drama. Sofia’s film, I must admit, aspires to art. And for that reason I can’t completely dismiss her. She hasn’t got it quite right in this film, but I do expect that with age and experience she may produce something brilliant one day. Once she acknowledges the real world.

(Note that the links above for each film show approval ratings–98% for The Queen, clearly a crowd- (plebe-?) pleaser, and 52% for the highly polarizing Marie Antoinette. An acquired taste, obviously, like caviar.)

Marie Antoinette

While doing a google search for “sofia coppola racist” I came across the following description at Racialicious of the theory behind all of Sofia’s films:

Life should come easy and it does only until you’re forced to live it (which is so mean and so the fault of patriarchy/foreigners or meanies/POCs/peasants) and when you are it isn’t because a world exists outside of you but simply because the world is intruding on you as you (special white women) are the center of the universe.

That about sums it up. I saw Marie Antoinette and was irritated by her presentation of Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s mistress, who came from the poorest of the poor and is portrayed as a crude, obnoxious, social-climbing bitch. She burps. She makes out with the king at the dinner table. She wears darkly- and brightly-colored clothing, that period’s version of “trampy.” And, though the real du Barry was blonde and blue-eyed, Coppola has cast the dark and very Italian-looking Asia Argento as the beast. All others at court are fair and light-haired (well, most wear those ridiculous gray wigs so sometimes it’s hard to tell, but no one is in the least ethnic-looking save du Barry). So once again in Coppola’s world, anyone not born rich and anyone who looks different is ridiculed, made a cheap stereotype. I’m not so much offended any more by her obliviousness to her own classism as I am disappointed by the lack of imagination. She so often falls back on cheap over-used jokes and stereotypes that you’d think a Yale graduate could come up with something more subtle and textured than that.

Of course, the real du Barry may not have been the most pleasant person to be around, I don’t know. But in a film that portrays Marie Antoinette sympathetically, and basically as a rich American teenager, Marie’s disgust with du Barry is disturbing because the film then wants us to support this exclusion of the only outsider in the entire film. Her court becomes her own gang of mean girls supporting her and excluding the dark and crude du Barry. Marie is shown to be amazingly accepting of all the ridiculousness of court life–she good-naturedly rolls her eyes but accepts that there are 30 court ladies standing at her bed every morning waiting for her to wake so they can watch her be dressed, she good-naturedly accepts that her husband won’t/can’t have sex with her for 7 years after they are married despite the vicious rumors about the reasons they are still childless, she good-naturedly accepts his weird obsessions and quirks…but du Barry, this she cannot accept. A low-class burping beast in her court? Never. Anything done by the upper-class is amusingly quirky; nothing of the lower class is tolerated (except for well-behaved servants who clean up after your lavish parties). Plus, it’s precisely these peasants/outsiders who later want to lop off poor Marie’s head.

It’s the same issue I had with the portrayal of the lounge singer in Lost in Translation. She is utterly ridiculous, and it’s fine to have characters who are ridiculous, but if Sofia could just include one small gesture, a look, something to give that character a small amount of humanity, it wouldn’t be so irritating. Instead they are completely dismissed as useless human beings. And these people always exist outside the rich main character’s world.

Part of me is hesitant to even bring up the issue of racism/classism because by doing so I become exactly the person her films is trying to vilify–I am one of those peasants with torches and muskets rioting outside Versailles calling for the poor burdened queen’s head. I was also one of those peasants while watching Lost in Translation, and also Virgin Suicides. I am one of those meanies intruding on Sofia’s perfect world and trying to force her to acknowledge reality. And there is something to be said about the way we watch movies, the way we demand to see suffering of the rich and elevation of the poor and downtrodden. I had to acknowledge that part of what irritated me about Lost in Translation is that it was about a couple of rich people who weren’t apologizing for being rich. That’s what we demand of rich characters in films. Should they have to? I don’t know. But it’s not just that. Her characters are rich and they ridicule anyone who isn’t. And they get away with it. That’s the extra step she takes that makes her films unsympathetic to me. I keep thinking (hoping?) that with each of her films she’s trying to remake Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy, where a rich couple travels–yet stays in their isolated bubble–through Italy. These people don’t apologize for being rich but their isolation from reality is highlighted, especially in the final scene, where they grasp for each other among a sea of peasants–giving up their attempt to enter reality and returning to their isolated bubble. This is a whole, complete, subtle, and complex treatment of the issue and I think it’s what Sofia is striving for. But she has missed the mark every time.

-isms aside, the film had other flaws. The acting was horrible throughout, especially Dunst and Jason Schwartzman. But there’s not much they could have done with such bad dialogue. The modern music was not too distracting so long as it was not diegetic, but once it became so it was very irritating–in a party scene the revelers danced to Siouxie and the Banshees. And the film runs so quickly through historic events, touching so slightly on them, that a lot of it probably didn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t know the story already. Of course a light touch fits with the themes of Marie’s obliviousness, but it’s not handled properly here–bringing them up so quickly only confuses people.

But as I said with Lost in Translation–while I am irritated by the themes in Sofia’s films, I am glad she at least has them. She has a point of view. She has a set of issues she keeps dealing with in each film. She is an auteur.

And besides, those bored rich bitches really need someone to voice their pain.