Marie Antoinette: History as a problem in film

When one thinks of the Coppola, one inevitably thinks of the great Francis Ford, whose striking Godfather movies have set the bar for dramatic storytelling and cinematography for generations of filmmakers to come.  However, recently, the younger Coppola, Sofia, has taken over the moviemaking role, and has sought to reinvent the historical story of Marie Antoinette, the infamous French queen beheaded at the start of the French Revolution.  However, for those expecting a serious, dour, and historically play by play rendering of the tragic (some say scandalous) life of the queen, they are in for somewhat of a surprise.

Indeed, the intentionally contemporary, visually stunning twist on the well-known tale is jarring in its departures from traditional historical thought.  So, too the visual liberties do much to literally force the audience to see the young queen from a different perspective.  The problem is, however, although Coppola can assert that her attempt is an artistic one, it is also one of manipulation.

That is because in the end, the audience is fully aware of the juxtaposition of their new, interpretation of Antoinette as delivered by the film, with the overwhelming force of historical fact (in as much as we are aware).  This departure from reality eventually leaves the audience feeling a bit cheated, as if the visual, auditory, and even literary ministrations of Coppola on the story have been nothing but a cheap trick—a meandering of whimsy intentionally downplaying the legitimate tragedy of Antoinette’s death and the serious principles behind the French Revolution.

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Almost as striking as the gentleness of the queen, the visual imagery of the film is without par.  The colors are as vibrant as any 50’s Technicolor dream, and the screen is consistently resplendent with bright pinks, blues and pastel wonders beyond imagination.  This is particularly true of the costuming, which is rendered in striking richness both in color and texture—helping to evoke the extravagant luxury of the French Court and the life of the queen.

In addition to the visually descriptive nature of the film, Antoinette’s relationship with her husband is portrayed as amazingly genteel, with her displaying endless patience for her husband’s quirky ways and obvious lack of sexual prowess.  Further, her important role as a mother and bearer of heirs is portrayed convincingly, with visual (only) mention of the death of one of her children in infancy.

However, apart from this reflection of historical trivia, the film does little to delve deeply into any of the issues of the time, or of Antoinette’s life.  Further, even the casting of American’s Kirsten Dunst and Jason Shwartzman seems to function as a way to move the film away from historical accuracy, if only in the audience’s mind.  This is particularly true when one hears the somewhat jarring sound of Dunst’s and Shwartzman’s flat American accents against the stylized French-accented comments of the Mistress of the Court.

Although one could say that Coppola’s portrayal of Antoinette in such a candy-pink, innocent and accommodating fashion (perhaps more devoid of malice due to her “straight forward” and simple American twang) could be authentic in that some of it describes the queen’s relative youth and innocence as she entered the court.   However, this does not progress to increased complexity, and the audience does not see her increased politicialization that by all historical accounts marks the last years of her life.

Indeed, as historians point out, Marie Antoinette was political, some say a bit of an activist, determined to resist the changes brewing in the midst of the growing revolutionary fervor in the country.  In fact, the movie seems to curiously, if perhaps, intentionally stay away from any true politicalization, “ugliness,” unrest or upheaval.  Apart from one or two references to the “people” being hungry and their not being enough bread, one simply does not see the common people or their plight at all.

“What revolution?,”the audience may wonder (perhaps more so amongst today’s less educated tween moviegoers).  Indeed, as the film closes, we are left with nary a glimpse in to the tragic fate of the queen.  Further, one would not imagine too horrible a fate, after all, according to Coppola’s portrayal, Antoinette would never have been so callous as to have said, “Let them eat cake!”  Certainly she was too good for that!  After all, didn’t she give up getting new diamonds so that the people may eat?

In addition to the creative storytelling that Coppola entertains throughout the film, the music, itself sets the soundtrack as a kind of point-making device to further help the audience to identify with the kind queen.  Strains of largely upbeat popular music (Bow Wow, Cindy Lauper) make everything seem more innocent, and heck, can’t the audience see they are “just like us,” not so foreign, not so historic!

Yes, it could have been any wealthy American or European girl in her shoes.  One can even see Paris Hilton in Versailles.  Under this treatment, Antoinette seems less distant, complex, serious, and significant in history.  Indeed, all of the messages gleaned from her experiences and narrative seem to melt away to the tune.  Yes, some classical music is incorporated into the film, but only after the jarring point of the modern has been thoroughly made.

Although the cinematic techniques utilized by Coppola definitely lead the audience to reinterpret history, several of the references to historical fact are accurate.  After all, the French did help the young America against Great Britain, and they did deplete sizable financial stores from France (exacerbating the plight of the poor) (Brinton, 1963).  However, by the time these historical points are made in the film, the other visual, dialogue, and tonal points have been made. Historical errors and downright tragedies of perception seem insignificant, just another point of verbal backdrop rather than pivotal junction.

In addition to the twisting of the audience’s perception of Antoinette as a function of tone (visual, dialogue, etc), Coppola also departs from historical fact to presumably make the movie “more interesting” to its audience—who are perhaps used to a “Dangerous Liaisons” kind of film.  Indeed, in departing from established historical fact and blithely embracing a supposed extramarital affair between Antoinette and the Count von Ferson, Coppila goes out of her way to add to history, simply for the entertainment value.

Although one cannot defiantly prove that such an affair did not occur in reality, historical sources do not indicate that it did.  This is hardly a trivial point in that it further contemporizes Antoinette, implying that such matters were commonplace (as they are today), and carried little consequences.  The historical and religious reality of Antoinette’s times were all to different, with serious consequences for both royal and common wives who strayed from the marriage bed. Of course none of these issues are dealt with and the whole “affair” is portrayed as just one more pleasant visual interlude among many, without meaning or serious interpretation.

Given all this, if one were to accept that Coppola did in fact deliberately attempt to use cinematic devices and storytelling in order to create a new version of the story, is this problematic?  If such a film were simple entertainment the answer would be no.  However, the difficulty that comes along with dealing with a historical subject is that there is some expectation from the audience that an attempt toward accuracy be made.  Yes, costumes in the Antoinette court were probably very pretty.

The queen might have been innocent, kind, sweet even.  Perhaps she never did say “let them eat cake.”  Such an assertion would not be new (1963).  However, using technique to reframe the events of the movie, be it through music, cinematography or dialogue creates either a problem with history itself—in essence changing it for the audience if they are impressionable, or though creating frustration or even anger in those who know better—and perhaps feel more than a bit cheated that the association of the character with the defining event of her times (the Revolution) was all but overlooked in film.

Although Coppola, herself has stated that it was not her intention to deal with politics or the political reality of her subject (Dudec, 2006), she does—if by omission.  In fact, her infamous statement, “Marie Antoinette was not interested in politics, so why should I be?” (2006) is problematic on many levels.  First, in its erroneous assumption that Antoinette was not interested in politics, she indicates a real unfamiliarity with her protagonist which is troubling.  Second, by “not being interested in politics,” one has to wonder at the appropriateness of Coppola dealing with the subject matter at all.  Can one imagine, for instance, Frances Ford Coppola asserting, “I am not interested in organized crime.”?

Coppola’s troubling attitude and treatment of the subject matter was so striking when the movie was screened in Cannes that the audience actually booed the film.  This may be in part due to the fact that Coppila did not take her information from respected historical sources.  Instead, she almost exclusively drew from Antonia Fraser’s contemporary biography, which itself is rife with similar flaws and omissions to the movie.

In the end, the audience is never privy to the “meat” of the Antoinette story—a story that the young female audience members that Coppila obviously targets could only learn from.  For example, she never showcases her strength, intelligence, or real power.  She does not take time to fully draw the immense political opinion and pressures against her as a “foreign queen,” nor does she deal with the complex nature of her death, the differences between rumor and political reality.

Of course, this is not to say that the film does not have its fans.  In fact, even among French audiences some appreciated the way in which Marie Antoinette was played outside of the norm.  Although some might argue that some French critics may be pleased that a large Hollywood producer would deal with the subject at all, one can assume that some found genuine satisfaction in the portrayal—puzzling or no.

Thus, the problems with the film hinge directly on the historical material.  Given any other non-historical subject matter, the same story might be just fine.  An afternoon of entertainment and “lavish visual effects.”  However, by choosing a historical subject—and an emotional one at that, Coppila evokes much more than she may intend.  Further, the reactions of audiences must be interpreted in the context of the subject matter, not simply on the basis of film quality, direction, art or sensibility.

Audiences either like the film or hate it—and each opinion carries with it serious implications.  After all, if one likes the film what does that say about one’s view or knowledge of history?  Has the “magic” of film influenced that opinion, and by continuation, one’s historical view?  Conversely, should one hate the film, would that person lack the ability to appreciate the “beauty” of the visual art in the film?  Or, instead, does one’s consciousness of the subject matter as history prohibit any such appreciation?

In the end, Coppola’s decision to use history as her muse may be the downfall of the film.  This because history demands a certain treatment in order to be molded into entertainment.  One cannot mould entertainment into history—it simply smacks of hollowness and superficiality—two of the most common criticisms of the film.

Worse, one can see that (as in the case with this film), even in the presence of some truly spectacular cinematography and visual beauty—not to mention some pretty significant financial investments, it is not enough to overcome the historical liberties taken with the film.  It is as if her subject matter has become her stumbling block.  To be sure, one can assert that the film is great in part.  However, in part is not enough for true greatness.  No, Marie Antoinette will be no Lawrence of Arabia, enjoyed for generations to come—and isn’t that the true test of a film’s merit?

Works Cited

Brinton, Crane. A Decade of Revolution 1789-1799. Harper and Row, 1963.

Dudec, A.  Cannes reality check. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 25, May 2006.  Retrieved on April 23, 2007, from, http://findarticles.com/?noadc=1

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