Writer-director Sofia Coppola has an affinity for telling stories about what it means to be a girl. In her breakthrough film “Virgin Suicides” (1999), she delved into the lives of teenaged sisters; “Lost in Translation” (2003) provided a glimpse into the mind of an existentially confused young woman. “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s newest film, humanizes a royal-blooded woman whose life has been appropriated by myth. History tells us that Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI of France, enjoyed spending money and told the peasants they could eat cake if they didn’t have bread. Instead of perpetuating this alleged comment, Coppola’s film explores Marie’s life from a completely different angle, expressing the idea that there is more to her than history has suggested.
“Marie Antoinette” follows the young future Queen of France (Kirsten Dunst) as she leaves her homeland and begins a new life in the Palace of Versailles. You’re able to sympathize with this historical figure because the film contextualizes if not offers an explanation for why and how she was (mis)construed as this unfeeling, extravagant snob. Marie Antoinette was Austrian by birth. For political reasons, she was married to Dauphin Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). In order to be the Dauphine, she has to forget who she was—perhaps not in terms of her heritage, but definitely her self-identity. She also has to live up to an established mold: learn French aristocratic customs and produce an heir. She is not able to achieve the latter for quite some time because of the Dauphin’s anxiety over his own reproductive abilities. Coppola’s film emphasizes that it is not Marie’s fault, though she must carry the burden of displaced blame. There are moments throughout the film where she looks at the affectionate couples around her; their happiness makes her loneliness more acute. Kirsten Dunst effectively portrays the pathos of her character.
“Marie Antoinette” isn’t an attempt to be historically accurate down to every last detail. There are surely scholars of French history, culture, fashion, or etiquette that could point out instances where Coppola has employed creative license. Some viewers might be bothered, but most should be moved by the emotional and psychological insights into what it is like to be Marie Antoinette. For instance, when her obligations are too overwhelming, her main coping mechanism is to lavish upon herself materialistic comforts.
Coppola’s film is especially compelling as it reveals the heart of Marie Antoinette. During what the viewer knows to be one of the Queen’s final moments, she steps out onto the balcony and lowers her head before the peasants, bowing with her arms spread out upon the railing in a gesture of atonement and self-sacrifice. She already relinquished her Austrian “self” when she entered France; and now she must also surrender her French “self.”