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Cannes: Before ‘The Beguiled,’ Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ Showed Her Genius for Crafting Characters Through Environments

"Marie Antoinette" was booed at Cannes, but it vividly illustrates how location is Coppola's most evocative means of exploring dislocation.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette

“Marie Antoinette”

When I think of “Marie Antoinette,” I think about the letter that Coppola wrote to author Antonia Fraser after she first optioned the rights to Fraser’s book about the last Queen of France before the Revolution. “I know I will be able to express how a girl experiences the grandeur of a palace,” she insisted, “the clothes, parties, rivals and ultimately having to grow up.” Fraser was intrigued by Coppola’s promise, as well as the personal history from which it stemmed: “She could identify with Marie Antoinette’s role, ‘coming from a strong family and fighting for her identity.’”

Coppola saw her heroine as a product of her place rather than politics, creating an impressionistic biography that is less interested in the monarchy than it is in its trappings, and its traps. “Marie Antoinette” is a film about someone trying to maintain herself in an environment that seeks to reduce her to her most basic function; it’s a film about woman doing whatever she can to prevent herself from becoming a doll. Coppola doesn’t defend Antoinette’s actions, but she understands her options (or lack thereof). She doesn’t let Antoinette off the hook (or out of the guillotine, as it were), but she’s almost entirely uninterested in her guilt.

Coppola simply sees her subject for who she was. First, a teenage girl who carried a country on her shoulders. Then, a woman who carried a country in her womb. Always, someone whose entire world only stretched as far as she could see outside her bedroom window. Someone who would have killed for The Strokes to help channel her fantasies, New Order to help crystallize her brief moments of freedom.

“Marie Antoinette” opens by sharply parodying our preconceptions about its namesake, introducing her as a pampered monster of privilege — Gang of Four sarcastically sings about “the problem of leisure” as Dunst turns to the camera and clucks her neck at us, as if to say “isn’t this what you came for?” With that out of the way, Coppola is free to start over from scratch, stripping Antoinette down to her factory setting as she stands on the border between Austria and France while strangers inspect her parts. She’s left with nothing before she can be given everything — even her pug is taken away. She stares out the window of her carriage as it rolls to Versailles, a layer of glass already separating her from the rest of her life.

From there, Coppola seizes on the quintessentially teenage disconnect between having all the power in the world and nowhere to go. Antoinette’s first morning in the palace begins with a few short moments of unguarded intimacy — she wakes up, stretches her arms, plays with her new dog — only to find that there are dozens of people who have “right of entry” to her room at all times. She can’t touch any of the beautiful things that adorn her new life until they’re handed to her. She’s prisoner whose sole purpose is to participate in conjugal visits, a piece of cake in a jar waiting to be eaten. Most of Coppola’s films are, to some degree, about the unbearable lightness of being famous, but the Queen of France is her only heroines whose position is a genuine threat to her personhood.

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This was the first film to shoot on location at the real Versailles, and Coppola perversely exploits that privilege to its full potential by almost never allowing the movie to leave the estate. “Marie Antoinette” is as oblivious to the outside world as Antoinette was herself, and by the time the film is over, even we poor commoners are clawing at the walls. At a certain point, Antoinette literally begins to fade into the wallpaper, Coppola costuming her in a dress that disappears into the décor.

Zach Braff tried the same trick in “Garden State,” but it’s a lot more effective in a movie that isn’t so self-pitying, than isn’t as concerned with invisibility as it is self-erasure. It’s a visual that the film refuses to forget, Coppola answering the anonymity of that shot with the rare moments of happiness that she affords her heroine, most of which find Antoinette briefly becoming someone else at masquerade parties or during games of charade. Her only other solace comes when she finally has a child and is allowed to spend some time alone at her summer home, away from the prying eyes of the women at court, allowed to read poetry and lay with her hair on the grass. She’s given some room to grow up, and she fills every inch of it.

Tellingly, “Marie Antoinette” isn’t over when its title character dies, but rather when she finally flees Versailles; it doesn’t end on a shot of Dunst’s severed head, but rather on an image of the Queen’s empty bedroom after it’s been ransacked by angry mobs. “What lingered after them was not life, but the most trivial list of mundane facts. A clock ticking on the wall, a room dim at noon, the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.” As far as Sofia Coppola is concerned, this story is only over when — like Johnny Marco leaving the Chateau or Bob Harris leaving Tokyo or the Lisbon girls leaving this mortal coil — Antoinette is able to fully escape the gilded cage that has stunted her growth for so long. She’s 35, and heading towards her death, but at least she knows who she is.

The Cannes Film Festival runs May 17 – 28.

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