What’s so bad about cake?
The Film: Sofia Coppola’s subversive examination of rigidly imposed femininity
The Potable: One pitcher of Sunny D mimosas
“Friendship between Austria and France must be cemented by marriage.” And so, a 14-year-old girl is sent to the frontlines of international diplomacy, abandoned in a strange environment like a child left to attend a birthday party at a Build-a-Bear Workshop. “But I don’t even hang out with Mark,” you protest in the car. Your mother confiscates your toy pistol – your comfort pop gun – on the grounds that it won’t be allowed in the store and hands you five dollars. “But this isn’t even enough to buy a bear,” you say as she shoves you out of the car, but it’s too late; you’re representing Austria now.
Marie struggles to adjust. The French aristocrats – who would have guessed – are inhospitably rude, her new husband has trouble commanding the Royal Johnson to attention, and she can’t even dress herself in the morning without worrying how Aunt Tallulah will feel about it, robbed of the opportunity to apply la Dauphine’s deodorant. “This is ridiculous,” Marie says. “This, madame, is Versaille,” her minder responds, a line that seems superfluous to me as I’m already fully aware of the setting.
Still, the greatest strain on the would-be queen is the unrelenting pressure to give birth to not just a child, but a son. Austria is no longer her home, but failing to produce an heir would threaten her stability in France, as well. It would mean the end of an alliance, the end of nations.
Marie’s a good sport about the whole thing, and unwinds in the evenings by listening to New Order records in the bathtub. This is the defining characteristic of Coppola’s film: an indie rock soundtrack that gives Marie Antoinette its sense of youthful cool, and allows the audience to recontextualize an historical figure as the teenager she really was. A handful of scenes stretch longer than necessary simply to accommodate these songs. Would I have chosen The Radio Dept.? The Strokes? If you ask me, nothing says adolescent rebellion like a healthy helping of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band, but maybe the producers couldn’t secure the rights. New Order is fine, but I spilled mimosa on my Chuck Taylors during that musical interlude – “goddamn toe tapper,” I said – and now I don’t care for them anymore.
While the impotent boy-king spends his days hunting, Marie manages to keep busy. She sneaks out of the palace by tossing a rope of Black Flag t-shirts from her window and hoofs it to the mall. Browsing row after row of colorful shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik and Pompei, the queen snacks on complementary macarons made by Ladurée and drinks free-flowing Dom Perignon. “Frivolous,” I thought. This morning, I checked the mail to find a package addressed to myself. Inside was a pair of magenta, lace-up heels and a bejeweled pop gun. I plan to keep one item but I am unsure of what to do with the other.
Marie also begins an affair with a young military stud. They roll in the hay, roll in the grass, and just generally have an all-around good time. Miraculously, this dalliance seems to improve her relationship with her husband. By film’s end, one gets the sense that Marie and Louis have truly become close friends. Not in love, perhaps, but companions of circumstance.
The lighting feels right. Several scenes feature candelabras, accurate to the time.
The film features an all-star cast that includes Rip Torn, Danny Huston, Rose Byrne, and a young Tom Hardy. Kirsten Dunst is phenomenal in the title role and I have a truly difficult time believing Jason Schwartzman ever touched a boob prior to 2006.
Sofia Coppola is often criticized for ignoring the historical or cultural contexts of her settings. A sympathetic portrayal of Madame Déficit? Is Coppola against the French Revolution? Does she want to overthrow liberal democracy in favor of a gilded age of new monarchs? No, you sober idiots. To the extent that the film has a political point, it’s this: how did this teenage queen become the villainous face of a system she never had any control over? But Coppola’s real area of interest here is the expectations placed on women – even women of means – and the ways girls find to rebel against those restrictions.
The French Revolution was obviously a necessary thing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find sympathy in the story of a girl who finally gained control of her situation, created a life according to the terms she was given, only to have it ripped away by circumstance.
Verdict: is it weird to wear socks with heels?