Many of the reviews of Marie Antoinette, a biopic of the doomed and frivolous queen, directed by Sofia Coppola, were harsh critiques of the way that Coppola had excluded from her canvass the starvation and poverty that gave rise to the French Revolution. Her film was ridiculed as a teenage girl's pastiche of French history- all exciting romances, sexy dresses and irritating adult protocol. (There was a faint whiff of sexism about this- one doesn't see equally or even more vapid productions about Casanova attacked in the same way- personally everything I say about this film could be said in the same way about recent productions on Casanova). Recently however Morgan Meis at 3quarksdaily has come to Coppola's defence.
Meis suggests that what Coppola did was not as frivolous as her film may appear. She attempted to recreate the experience of Marie Antoinette as a young woman at the French court in the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s. Using Antonia Fraser's recent biography, Coppola crafted an Antoinette that was naive, thoughtless and a little petulant, but was also charming, kind and under a great deal of pressure as she saw it from kinsmen to have a child. She had all the limitations of her upbringing so the poverty of the French peasant meant less to her than the fact that her husband was unwilling to have sex with her. And despite the rising turmoil in France, as soon as he did Antoinette's life became much more fun- a circus of gambling, affairs and beautiful things- all the attributes that she had been educated to desire. On this basis the film is a recreation of the world as it appeared to Marie, not the world as it existed and as such it must have some merit.
Well, I must admit to having not watched the whole film- but some thoughts immediately strike me. There is a value in doing what Coppola has done in this movie- in part this is what my PhD is designed to do, recreate a world that we are unfamiliar with and show it in all its colour. Robert Bresson does this wonderfully in his film about the trial of Joan of Arc but note the difference. Bresson takes us inside a mind that is genuinely interesting- reduced to the bare canvass he paints on- the question about Joan is her martyrdom for a cause- what did that feel like, why did she do it, how can we understand her. Florence Delay's remarkable performance takes us closer by an inch to understanding those questions. What about Marie Antoinette? What does it allow us to understand? Kirsten Dunst's performance allows us to reach the conclusion that uneducated pretty girls like pretty things, men and gambling. That being a princess in France or even the queen of France was a biological not a political career- like Henry VIII's queens she must produce. That ultimately feminism has liberated women from being wombs, to becoming persons.
All of that is true, but Coppola chose her subject and one has to ask whether the world of Antoinette is sufficiently interesting to hold one's attention. The film struggled to hold my attention- partly because the world of Antoinette doesn't fascinate me. If one is trying to show the world of a French aristocratic woman living vaguely contemporarily to Antoinette, it strikes me say that the world of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress to Louis XV would be much more interesting. Pompadour's life would enable you to explore many of the questions that Coppola explored- but go a bit deeper and further, Pompadour was a patron of the encyclopedie, the great masterpiece of the enlightenment. Writing a film about Pompadour would get you deeper into the age- you could film the great salons of intellectual France- you would find Pompadour as a real defender and engager within the enlightenment. And yet still you would find that Pompadour, this amazingly intelligent, thoughtful and interesting woman, only was able to enter the salons and defend Diderot and D'Alembert from the censor, because the King wanted to have sex with her- her destiny as a woman, despite all her charm and intelligence, was her womb.
The issue that I have with the film is that it is a great portrait of the world of Antoinette- but is this a world we need a portrait of. So much money and so much time and talent was invested in this film- there is no doubt that Coppola is a good director of this kind of films- I enjoyed both The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation- there is no doubt that Dunst is amongst the rising stars of Hollywood and she can act as the Virgin Suicides a previous collaboration with Coppola demonstrates- but was this Antoinette worth so much time- what ultimately did anyone learn watching the film beyond the fact that a queen of France had a lot of nice dresses but was still only interesting to contemporaries insofar as she became pregnant. I would have thought that there were other subjects around which you could have made that point, but who would have allowed you to get a bit deeper into what happened in 18th Century France and make a more interesting film.
If you are going to base your cinematic art on empathy- your choice of subject is rather important!