Directed by Sofia Coppola
If you can boil this movie down to one idea, I think it would be consequence, both the importance of having consequences to your decisions and the abruptness of consequences in your life.
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is a character whose life has no consequences. She even pushes back against the restraints imposed on her, but her position as royalty allows her behavior to become more extreme. Her lavish lifestyle and peculiar taste in fashion were marks of her seeing how far she can go. This was never a lifestyle she chose, but since she’s here, she’s going to do what she wants with it. In the end, and not because of her, she must face harsh consequences that force her, once more, to completely change her lifestyle.
The movie begins and ends with these sudden upheavals, and neither one is because of her but it happens to her. She’s hardly in control except in how she chooses to carry herself, who she chooses to sleep with, talk to and dine with. In many ways her individual actions have no consequences, but her circumstances are bending and bending until we know they’re going to break, due to the French Revolution. So I guess the way I’m looking at it is that it feels like the end results, riots and forced move out of Versailles is a consequence to the way Marie has been living, but it’s not. None of that has any bearing on her lifestyle. Granted, she does spend without concern and enjoys certain unnecessary, expensive pleasures, but I can’t imagine those expenses are the sole reason for the French Revolution. In fact, I know they’re not, though it has been a while since I’ve done any reading on that revolution. Instead, I think her behavior and lavish spending is a symptom of the role she’s found herself shoved into. It’s a role that’s often demeaning and isolating, and it pushes her further and further into a realm of unbelievability. She doesn’t live in the real world though she does try to construct one that is real (her palace-contained personal village).
When the bubble bursts, it feels inevitable because that lifestyle of kings and queens is so archaic and ridiculous. The customs, traditions, rules feel so insane because they are. We see this through Marie’s eyes, and she’s a very modern character, like someone plucked out of 2006 and thrown into the late 1700s. She thinks the way we do, but she absorbs that world in a way both expected of someone in her position and also unexpected of a queen.
So the end of the story and her and Louis’ expulsion from the palace feels like a condemnation of their behavior, so out of this world and disconnected from the reality of the rest of France (which we never see onscreen because we are so absorbed in the king’s and queen’s world). And I think the ending can be read that way. It feels like a commentary on strange, pointless societal and cultural rules. Is the point then to shine a light on our own cultural rules and gender roles today?
It was hard to grasp what my relationship to the story was supposed to be as I watched this film. Marie is our audience surrogate into the royal life at Versailles. Everything that is strange to us is also strange to her. We’re completely on her side, and I found myself very sympathetic to the coldness of her new life. We see her leave behind her friends, her puppy and her country. She’s an alien in this new world, and in many cases looked down on despite her royal status. Her new husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) is more boyish than regal, hardly speaking to his new wife as if he simply doesn’t know how to talk to her. At the same time he is extremely well versed in customs and behavior expected of him. The night of their marriage, both Louis and Marie perform an incredibly graceful but awkward dance, something like a peacock mating ritual. What’s odd is how rehearsed it is considering they’ve only just met. And not only that, but Marie performs it incredibly well, just like Louis. It’s an eye opener because we’ve seen Marie be constantly befuddled by this new life given to her, and yet she is already adapting to it. Her distance from this new world doesn’t show in how she interacts with it, only in a few expressions here and there. It suggests that Louis might have as difficult a time as she in fitting into his new role.
Louis is more interested in locks, reading about locks and hunting with his pals. The young couple has not yet consummated the marriage, and this becomes a growing concern to the court around them. The pressure mostly falls on Marie’s shoulders, but every advance she makes towards her husband feels bathed in pedophilia, but I can’t tell who the child is. They’re both children.
When her sister has a baby, and a Duchess at court has a child, Marie begins to take more action, deciding who she wants to be. She becomes a rebel in many ways, and she’s willing to jeopardize her position in the royal family. Without a child, she can be replaced with ease, but this doesn’t bother her. Instead she lives like she knows she’ll be thrown out of court, but she doesn’t care. The shackles are in many ways removed, and she has enough freedom that she’s willing to press on, eventually giving birth to Louis’ child, a young girl.
Marie’s transition from a stranger to an important member in Versailles happens pretty quickly, almost before we can adjust our viewing expectations. I considered her an outsider just about the entire time until suddenly and quickly she has a child and is sharing warm smiles with her husband. It’s like having a friend complain to you over and over about their significant other. They tell you how unfairly they’re treated, and you sympathize with them, going so far as to suggest that the significant other isn’t worth their time. Then the next time they see you they smile and announce they’re getting married or having a child or co-parenting a spotted cat named Pearl.
In a way I felt betrayed by Marie’s sudden ingratiation into her new life. Maybe betrayed is too strong of a word, but suddenly I felt further from her. Not long after the child’s birth (in movie time), Marie has constructed a small village within the palace grounds for her and her companions to live in. It’s a bit insane to make your own little world like that (though admittedly pretty cool), and I felt then like I was watching Norma Bates become the woman who would inspire Norman to be, you know, psycho.
Marie never demonstrates any attraction to her husband (even after having two children), but she shows him affection nonetheless. He returns this affection, and their relationship feels like a political marriage, or an alliance, which it is. So they’ve both bought in. In one scene, Marie acts in a play she’s put on within the palace grounds, I believe. Louis watches on with pride, and then he is the first to stand up and applaud like he’s trying to cheat his fit bit into giving him steps he hasn’t earned. This scene is straight out of a similar one in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and it seemed to mark a point of no return. These characters aren’t vaguely human anymore, if they even ever were. They live in their own world, and while it’s not one they themselves constructed, it’s one they haven’t bothered to improve for the rest of the world. They work on themselves, not on France, and it’s a continuation of the status quo, helping lead to what we would now consider an inevitable revolution.
Marie Antoinette, in the end, is about our relationship to the film’s protagonist. It’s unclear if the film has any agenda for how we are supposed to feel about Marie in the end, when she, Louis and the children flee Versailles under threat of an angry mob. There is no sense of remorse on their parts. Almost right up until they flee, they show no signs of changing their rigid lifestyle, even eating at the same breakfast table as they do every morning, with lavish spreads, even as the mob seems ready to burst through the door with pitchforks. She and Louis try desperately to keep everything exactly as it is until they have no choice but to leave. And even then, Marie only looks longingly out the window, telling Louis that she’s saying goodbye to their home like it has been taken from them. Sure, it has been taken from them to some degree, but she looks at the situation as if it is happening to her, ignoring her part in the creation of the climate which has led to this. So no matter how much influence and control she ever had, she never seemed to think she had any power, but at one point she did. She used to be able to inspire an entire audience to applaud even though they were trained not to applaud a good performance. At a later performance, when France is suffering, the audience doesn’t follow her lead to applaud.
She once had power, without realizing she had it, and has lost it. In her head it might seem like it was never there, but we’ve seen it come and go. I think our viewing relationship with Marie Antoinette mirrors her loss of power. From the very beginning, we are in the palm of her hands. We feel what she feels, and we want for her what she wants for herself. We’re like a devoted follower. By the end of the film, however, much of that devotion has been shed, though possibly not all. We are a little more world-weary and disenchanted, convinced that Marie has distanced herself from us. She leaves the palace, disgraced, and seems to be asking the audience for just a little bit of sympathy to carry her out, because at the beginning in this strange new world that was all she had, our sympathies, even if she didn’t know it.