Meaning and Marie

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Andrew Durham/Columbia Pictures

Much like its protagonist, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette met with a good deal of criticism from the general population for not adhering to the existing mold of expectations. Denounced as narrative fluff, as insubstantial eye candy, as a mockery of history, the film disappointed many viewers who eagerly awaited Coppola’s follow-up effort to the director’s 2001 critically acclaimed Lost in Translation. The fickle public, it seems, has little patience for Coppola’s characteristically unconventional filmic style – a parallel theme of misunderstood individualism not lost on those devotees who truly appreciate Marie Antoinette. But more than simply a biographical metaphor, Coppola’s third feature film invokes an element of self-reflexivity not unusual to her manner of storytelling but essential to the acknowledgment of her treatment of the themes at work here. Essentially a contemporary interpretation – not a representation – of a historical figure, Marie Antoinette self-reflexively explores the notions of celebrity and social artifice from the double vantage points of diegesis and apparatus, indirectly but effectively provoking reflection on these ideas and their relevance to both the past and present worlds which purposefully collide on Coppola’s carefully constructed filmic plane.

The element of self-reflexivity in Marie Antoinette is more subtle than, say, Hitchcock’s Rear Window or even Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up. But while this is not a film that seeks to draw a parallel between film spectatorship and voyeurism or to expose the filmic apparatus per se, it does both of these things – albeit to a different degree – throughout its course. The most obvious example of the film’s self-reflexivity is also the most immediate: its use of contemporary rock music, which plays over the opening titles and the first visual image of Kirsten Dunst’s characterization of Marie Antoinette. Perhaps the most widely criticized element of the whole work, this anachronistic soundtrack actually – and instantly – signifies on a formal level the film’s effort to explore thematic ideals rather than historical facts, as well as its attempt to bridge the subjective gap between past and present. Clearly subverting the normal spectatorial expectations for a period film, the persistent use of contemporary non-diegetic music serves as a continuous reminder that the goal here is not to represent (again) the facts of history but rather, to artfully investigate certain themes that resonate with modern-day life, including the construction and perception of a celebrated persona, as well as the reality of each.

The film’s diegesis picks up this thread of self-reflexive deliberation to a certain extent, as well. It is no accident that Coppola chose to primarily emphasize the topic of sexual relations between Marie Antoinette and her awkward husband Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman) within her narrative version of their story – regardless of historical accuracy, intense public interest in the sex lives of celebrated individuals is clearly a familiar phenomenon to the film’s contemporary viewers. Hollywood-literate to the max, today’s celebrity-tabloid-hungry society is not unlike the gossipy population of Coppola’s version of Versailles, who seem entirely unable to distract themselves from the desire to know the ins and outs of the royal bedroom. In return for their elevated social status, the public subjects the couple – but particularly the foreign Marie – to unrelenting scrutiny, echoing the logic used to justify contemporary media explosions over certain celebrity relationships and failings, when hardly a day goes by that such “news” does not end up in even the legitimate headlines. Only in the “reality” of the viewers of Marie Antoinette, film stardom replaces state royalty, an ironic – but probably not accidental – notion considering the many well-known actors who populate the cast.

That these actors – who hail from several different countries – make no attempt to disguise their original accents to pass themselves off as French marks another – more subtle but no less significant – self-reflexive move. Hearing Dunst’s flat American drawl next to Judy Davis’s clipped Austrailian-flavored British English or Rip Torn’s coarse twang paired with Asia Argento’s Italian inflection is just as jarring as listening to a remix of the 1980s pop song “I Want Candy” in the middle of a period-based film. These aural juxtapositions discourage any tendency to become immersed in the world of the film, instead highlighting the artifice of the experience by forgoing the more typical filmmaking tendency to establish realism through uniform character accents — or a soundtrack composed of period music. Not sloppy filmmaking by any means, Coppola’s choice to retain every actor’s personal manner of speech seems quite calculated, considering that her scripted dialogue clearly mimics the standard “period” syntax. Voiced in various contemporary accents, this manner of speech takes on an disconcerting degree of unnaturalness, further thwarting the illusion of reality most historical films hope to achieve.

The visual quality of the film itself enhances the impression of artificiality, as well, more often than not resembling a painting come to life. The elaborate costume and makeup design can hardly help but call attention to itself as spectacle, particularly as the cinematographic style echoes the soft tones of fashion photography and oil portraits. That is to say, the film self-consciously presents itself as visual fare, contrived for the spectator’s pleasure. Coppola’s frequent use of static landscape shots further accentuates this sense of visual artifice, as does the inclusion of several music video-esque sequences composed of non-diegetic, cutaway shots timed to rock and pop songs. While these Hollywood montages, in particular, do serve a limited function in the progression of the narrative, they also seem to resolutely disrupt its flow – periodically calling attention to the devices of filmmaking while simultaneously reiterating the fabricated nature of the visual spectacle. While this is not a film solely about the artificiality of film, Coppola seems determined to push her viewers toward acknowledging its constructed nature in order to grasp the full significance of the content it holds.

In this, Marie Antoinette possess a unique, very Coppola-esque brand of self-reflexivity. The layers of the film continually turn in on themselves, sometimes to the point that it becomes unclear just where the significance of it all lies. What remains clear, however, is the fact that every aspect of the film continues to be inextricably linked to every other aspect of the film – narrative and spectacle and self-reflexivity all work together in the exploration of the themes that only begin (or do they?) with the historical figure of Marie Antoinette.

© 2007 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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