Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette

Cannes Film Fest 2006–“Marie Antoinette” marks writer/director Sofia Coppolas third feature film, and by far her most ambitious. She transforms the misunderstood Marie Antoinette through her refreshingly modern and upbeat approach thats devoid of conventions of period pieces. In its place, she has created a moving story of adolescent angst and spirit that transcends its time. Coppolas strikingly personal vision and imaginative visual style re-imagines Marie Antoinette and the entire court of Versailles through the lens of todays popular culture.

Contemporary View

Everything we did is based on research about the period, but its all seen in a contemporary way, says Coppola. My biggest fear was making a Masterpiece Theatre kind of movie. I didnt want to make a dry, historical period movie with the distant, cold tableau of shots. It was very important to me to tell the story in my own way. In the same way as I wanted “Lost in Translation” to feel like you had just spent a couple of hours in Tokyo, I wanted this film to let the audience feel what it might be like to be in Versailles during that time and to really get lost in that world.

Marie Antoinette today conjures up images of a glamorous Queen who lived in luxury and uttered the immortal words Let them eat cake while the French peasant class starved. Ultimately the peasants revolted, and she was sentenced to death for her perceived contempt and indifference. However, recent historical research demonstrates that much of what we thought we knew about Marie Antoinette was just a myth and in fact she never uttered those immortal words she is so famously credited with saying.

The real Marie Antoinette was a nave and lost teenager who was unprepared to take her place as a major player in the turbulent history of late eighteenth century France. The Austrian-born princess was shipped off to Versailles at 14, where she was shocked by the rigid etiquette, brutal family infighting and merciless gossip of the French royal court. Trapped in a passionless marriage and forced to live in the unforgiving glare of the public spotlight, Marie Antoinette found her escape in the only refuge allowed her the sensual pleasures of youth. But her frivolity unwittingly made her the object of scandal, a target for political propaganda and a convenient scapegoat for a poverty-stricken society on the verge of revolution. In the end, she faced her enemies and accepted her fate with dignity and courage.

The true story of Marie Antoinettes misunderstood life came to widespread attention in 2002 with the publication of Antonia Frasers highly readable biography “Marie Antoinette: The Journey.” The book immediately garnered acclaim for its meticulous research, which offered a completely new and compelling view of the much-maligned monarch. Fraser painted a picture not of an imperious Queen oblivious to suffering but rather of a fanciful, lively teenager who was warm and empathic by nature, yet unprepared for the demands of her highly visible life in the French royal court of Versailles and the intrigues of political power.

The irony was that, despite being surrounded by thousands of onlookers and attendants, Marie Antoinette felt utterly secluded and alone–a young girl trapped in a fantasy world that left her precious little freedom.

It was this unusual and surprising take on Marie Antoinette that caught the attention of writer/director Sofia Coppola. Like most of us, Coppola was familiar only with the standard myths about the worlds most infamous Queen. Through Frasers biography, a more sympathetic and believably human young woman emerged. Here was a Marie Antoinette who was vibrantly youthful and strikingly contemporary in her struggles–with loneliness, gossip, desire, love and coming of age–except that the consequences of her journey unfolded on an enormous historical stage.

I had heard the usual clichs about Marie Antoinette and her decadent lifestyle, comments Coppola. But I had never realized before how young she and Louis XVI really were. They were basically teenagers in charge of running France during a very volatile period and from within an incredibly extravagant setting, the royal court of Versailles. Thats what first interested me: The idea that these young kids were placed in that position and trying to find out what they went through trying to grow up in such an extreme situation.

The more she learned about her, the more Coppola became fascinated by Marie Antoinettes inner experience. She was intrigued by the story of how Marie Antoinette was completely uprooted in the middle of adolescence, married off to a royal figure who offered her no warmth or affection, subjected to severe scrutiny, arbitrary rules and public ridicule–and at the same time given license to satisfy her every whim. Coppola wondered how a modern teenager would have handled such a completely surreal situation.

I became interested in the things Marie Antoinette went through that were relatable on a human level, Coppola continues. She was basically regarded as an outsider in France and had to deal with in-laws who didnt approve of her, a husband who wasnt interested in her and this entire court, which was highly critical of her. She was like the new kid in school–but in a very alien environment. I could imagine her going off to her private room with her friends to escape the severe rules of court etiquette. I began to imagine what it would be like to be in that situation. Throughout history shes been portrayed as a villain, but as I read about her, the more she seemed quite sweet, a little nave or sheltered, but mostly a good-hearted, creative person who was unaware of the world outside of Versailles.

Coppola was also interested in Marie Antoinette as a struggling young wife, desperate to please her husband but incapable of making him happy. I was taken by the idea that, because she was so unhappy in her marriage, she started shopping and going to parties as a distraction–like a contemporary rich wife in a loveless marriage. She really didnt want to go home to this guy who was always rejecting her, so she found other ways to distract herself, Coppola observes.

In order to convey all these ideas, Coppola reasoned, she would have to write Marie Antoinettes story in a completely different way. Instead of the typical sweeping costume epic, she wanted to tell a more intimate tale, invested with all the energy and angst of a young womans coming of age. Her Marie Antoinette was to be a flawed woman, ultimately redeemed by the grace she displays under fire.

Not a Big Historical Epic

My main objective was to not make a big, historical epic, says Coppola of her original approach to “Marie Antoinette.” Her life is a huge historical chronicle, and while I was respectful of that, I wanted to tell a much more impressionistic story from Marie Antoinettes point of view as we watch her grow and mature. Most of the stories we know about her come from other peoples perceptions of her. I was much less interested in the political and historical views of her and more in her personal experience. Rather than a stuffy, formal portrait, I wanted to reveal the way people must have behaved when they were behind closed doors.

Right from the start, Coppola focused on an iconoclastic approach, not only in the story, but in its presentation, involving a distinctly modern, graphic style, hoping to turn a historical subject into one that was more immediate, emotional and visceral. The idea was to capture in the design the way in which I imagined the essence of Marie Antoinettes spirit, Coppola explains. So the films candy colors, its atmosphere and the teenaged music all reflect and are meant to evoke how I saw that world from Marie Antoinettes perspective. She was in a total silk and cake world. It was a complete bubble right up until the very end.

Coppola approached historical biographer Antonia Fraser about adapting her book into a highly stylized film. Fraser was both surprised and pleased by the directors singular approach toward shattering the myths surrounding Marie Antoinette. I was very attracted by Sofias enthusiasm, says Fraser. We come from very different angles but she had her own vision of Marie Antoinette and a wonderful intensity.

Sofia understood that the things that happened to Marie Antoinette were absolutely extraordinary, says Fraser. First, she was essentially sold into slavery to become a French princess. Then she was supposed to support Austria at the age of 14. Then shes got into this weird, unconsummated marriage but was supposed to produce a child. Sofia shows very sympathetically how Marie Antoinette tried to cope with this remarkable situation. All the shopping, extravagance and decadence were a reaction to all of the terrible things that happened to her yet were not of her making. I liked that approach very much.

As she came at the story in her own way, Coppola found inspiration from other modern sources as well especially the New Romantic pop music movement of the 1980s which was itself heavily influenced by 18th century ideals of extravagance. New Romantic artists such as Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant celebrated glamour, luxurious fashion and hedonistic fun during that period as a kind of counterpoint to both the boredom of classic rock and the primal anger of punk music. Coppola saw the music as a modern lens through which to view Marie Antoinette and songs such as Bow Wow Wows I Want Candy seemed to serve as a perfect, modern expression of Marie Antoinettes impulses to find fulfillment through pleasure.

I really wanted to bring a little of the New Romantic spirit into it because I felt it had such a similar mix of youthfulness, color and decadence, says Coppola. This is a more playful version of history that reflects teenagers in a decadent time. At the same time, there is always a sense that while theyre partying into oblivion the revolution is right around the corner.