Female Filmmaker Friday: Marie Antoinette (2006)

A look at life, loves, and losses of Marie Antoinette, a young girl sent to marry the future king of France at 15, who began her reign at 19, and lost her way in luxury and decadence soon after.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the film makes a case for the viewer to see Marie Antoinette in a better light than what they have learned in history class. Here she’s painted as a teenage girl sent to marry a man she’s never met, pushed to produce heirs to the throne, while given a lavish and decadent lifestyle which led to her life feeling unfulfilled and thus making her do all she could to make her life as interesting as she could with what was offered to her. Here the take on Marie Antoinette is almost friendly, showing her as a complex person who was raised in luxury, married into more luxury, and thus completely disconnected from the French populace that ultimately took her and her husband down. The film approaches this without judgment and an interest in humanizing without glorifying a woman who’s often only known for a single quote.

Playing the central character, the titular lady, is Kirsten Dunst who does well playing the often bored, sometimes happy ruler. She gives dimension to a young women most are only somewhat familiar with. She takes Marie Antoinette from the history books to the screen in a manner that gives her a persona that goes beyond what’s available in books. Dunst makes the character very much hers by giving the kind of performance expected of her, which is good and fitting here, playing the spoiled queen. Her usually understated, a bit blasé style works perfectly. Playing her disinterred husband Louis XVI is Jason Bateman who does good work here but feels a bit out of place. Just like Dunst, he plays his character as a bit bored or blasé by all the luxuries put in front of him, making it easy to see why these monarchs became disliked and even hated by the populace. Giving vivacious performances and ones filled with attitude are Rose Byrne as the Duchess of Polignac and Asia Argento as the Comtesse du Barry respectively. Both are fun to watch and highly entertaining even in their limited screen time. Also great fun to see in parts that feel a bit unexpected for them are Steve Coogan as Ambassador Mercy and Tom Hardy as Raumont.

This cast evolves in a lush, colorful, and luxurious world where expensive fabrics, fantastic locations, and completely insane hairdos, that would make even RuPaul jealous, are de rigueur. All of this starts with the art direction by Pierre du Boisberranger and done under the supervising art director Anne Seibel. The set decoration by Veronique Melery is magnificent and stuffed with details, yet not stuffy. The use of the Palais de Versailles as well as a separate house and a few other locations gives the film a very regal and opulent feel. Adding to the locations and décors are the costumes, hair, and make-up. The costume designs are credited to Manolo Blahnik and Milena Canonero. Blahnik’s work is obviously the shoes, and what decadently awesome shoes they are. So great in fact, they get their own spotlight and fashion montage. The costumes for their part are amazing, the fabrics, colors, and details are insane. It may not all be 100% historically accurate but the looks created and the styles are visually striking, helping define the film and the characters. Also more than noteworthy is the work from the make-up artists, hair stylists, and wig makers, their work help establish and maintain the style for the throughout.

All of this decadence is shot with just the right amount of flourishes by the cinematography by director of photography Lance Acord. His work helps set the tone for each scene, giving some of the scenes a light and airy feel while others are shot in a more austere manner giving them a serious tone. His work here is integral to how the film comes across. Some of the images in Marie Antoinette, particularly in her early days at Versailles and later at her home with her eldest child, have a dreamlike, romantic, playful quality to the them, giving her life at those points a sense of hope. His style adapts to each scene’s and situation’s needs, amplifying their general effect at times and stepping back at others. His work shows a great understanding of the power images can have with storytelling but also with emotions.

Assisting the images are the score by Dustin O’Halloran and the oftentimes surprising soundtrack song choices. The mix of the two is well-calculated and creates a sound that is very specific to the film and its character while also fitting in the style expected from a Sofia Coppola film. There’s an ethereal quality at times and a lightness that works perfectly here.

Marie Antoinette is one of those films some viewers may be reluctant to see due to some of the historical inaccuracies and liberties taken, but it’s worth seeing for the talent involved and the sheer amount of details crammed into every second of the film. The film is also fun to watch with a bit on a 80s/90s coming-of-age story feel to it, particularly in the first half, with even a montage when she basically goes home-shopping like a true royal. The film’s decadence and opulence as well as all the details in décor, costumes, wigs, etc is fascinating and shows that Coppola had a true vision for it and, on top of her talent, she found all the right people to bring it all to life in a cotton-candy historical vision.