Little Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is weaned too soon from the maternal teat of her royal Austrian homeland and queen mother Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithfull). Having brokered a marriage of political convenience, Maria Teresa sends her naïve and uneducated daughter to the French royal court at Versailles to marry the future King Louis XVI. At the border Marie Antoinette is stripped of her Austrian identity, her clothes, her favorite lapdog, her gowns, right down to her petticoats. Nothing coarsely Austrian shall ever sully even the borderlands of the richest ruling family and country in Europe.
In Sofia Coppola’s revisionist fairy tale, it’s all about the celebrity. Indeed, all the synth pop sound tracks, Madonna-like glamour shots, and the overpowering, Ken Russell on acid cinematography, drive relentlessly at Coppola’s true concern – the bloated, vapid, insipidly Baroque twin gods of twenty-first century America – rampant consumerism and the religion of mega-celebrity. Coppola uses the quaint narrative shell of the Hollywood costume drama (perhaps she even intends this film as a tribute to Hollywood’s Depression-era spectacles) to tell a very public private story: the dilemma of the poor little rich girl, born into the unrelenting celebrity spotlight of Hollywood royalty.
Perhaps the most curious, and anachronistic, aspect of this film is its utter lack of any historical contextualizing. Some have sought to argue this film, and Antonia Fraser’s biography which it is based on, as resetting the historically harsh judgment of the historical personage. This Marie Antoinette emerges as fully American, a poor little rich girl who just wants to have fun, a McMansion suburban housewife and mother, living the Malibu Barbie lifestyle totally to the max.
Why some French people speak with an American accent, while others with a British one, is never explained. When Marie Antoinette’s daughter occasionally lapses into actual French it only muddies the question. But it is very easy to imagine this Marie Antoinette brushing off the rabble with a cheerleaderly callow, ““Let them eat pop tarts!” When the angry, starving, long-deceived mob finally comes for Marie and Louis in this two-hour movie, it isn’t a moment too soon.
The film, or possibly the director, suggests a direct connection between the obscenely wealthy and hopelessly out-of-touch ruling class and the starving masses of 1789 France, to those of Depression-era America, and especially to those of present-day have-not America and its Republican-corporate ruling class. After all, Baroque kitsch was the aesthetic decision of power-mad counter-revolutionary autocrats and the Counter-Reformationist Roman Church seeking to seduce the masses. The leaders distracted themselves with splendid fussiness, scandal and petty intriguing from the growing chaos outside the palace gates, as insurgency broke out and civil war clouds loomed on the horizon.
As a serious film, only an American could love Marie Antoinette. To the French, it must be gravely insulting. As an unwitting camp, it may have a great future. Taken ironically, Marie Antoinette suddenly becomes an eerily portentous parable of the Bush regime. The subtext reads: poor little Georgie W gets married off and has to live in poisonous Beltway society, when all he really wants is a simple life playing oil baron cowboys in Texas and grouse-hunting with his fellow good old boys.
Jason Schwartzman plays Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI as a kind of Tom Hulce-Mozart look-alike. Asia Argento plays Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s paramour, as a cheap Hollywood floozy, and is the only almost-likable female character in the film. Rip Torn serves up a pleasantly Rabalaisian Louis XV. Much of the rest of the cast comes across as extras borrowed from Disney’s Cinderella. In keeping with the current vogue in the corporate-owned entertainment industry for design, fashion, and Baroque electronic gaming, Marie Antoinette is sumptuously gorgeous, bombarding the senses without challenging the intellect.