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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Marie Antoinette (2006) Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Royal bio-pics have been a mainstay of commercial cinema since its inception. Historians fear them, as ultimately, they are seen as a commercial and entertainment venture first and historical document second. Inevitably filmmakers will have to condense, elide, edit and re-organise a life in order to make a satisfactory and coherent narrative.

They are usually held up as exemplars of high production values in costumes, hair, make-up, and settings, and location. Stately homes which are used as locations often see a high up-turn in visitor numbers.

In my book Bio-PIcs: a life in pictures I wrote about four films that examined the lives of three Queens which exemplified the ever-present ideas of pitting private and public personas against one another. An Asian director’s take on English history with Shekhar Kapur's pair of films about Elizabeth I starring the Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, American director Sofia Coppola’s version of French history in Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst and Stephen Frears/Peter Morgan's look at the reign of Elizabeth II through an extraordinary week in in her life.

On the anniversary of her execution on 16 October 1793, here are some extracts from about Marie Antoinette from my book, Bio-PIcs: a life in pictures.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette) and Jason Schwartzman (Louis XVI)

Subject: Queen of France and Navarre Marie Antoinette (Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna 1755 - 1793)

Screenwriter and director Sofia Coppola used Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic and well-respected biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001) as her source material. She said, ‘I wanted to avoid doing a biopic because I hate that kind of typical structure… I wanted this to be more impressionistic, more a portrait of what it might have been like from her point of view.’ (Freer 2006)

She continued, ‘I feel like everything the public knows about Marie Antoinette is based on false information… I was reading Antonia Fraser’s book and saw there was this real girl – that so much of what we know about her is based on propaganda. It was interesting to see the other side of what life could have been like for her. I didn’t see her as a villain. Marie Antoinette was just a teenager when she went to Versailles; what she wanted was to stay out late and go to parties. The film was about trying to understand her voice and make her sympathetic: to see the girl behind all the myths.’ (Woolf 2006)

The film covers the period in Antoinette’s life from 1768, when aged, 14, her mother the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Marianne Faithfull), arranges for her marriage to the young dauphin, later Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzmann) to her arrest and imprisonment in 1792.

The youngest of sixteen children, Antoinette is ignorant of the world and the expectation of being a married woman. As years pass, and the French courtiers despise her, the more she gets caught up in a cycle of parties, gambling, shopping and gossip causing fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar’s film critic to note, ‘We may be remembered as the Heat generation, but to reduce one of the most fascinating periods in European history to a tale of shopping and fucking is beyond the pale.’ (Frostrup 2006)

Neglected by her husband sexually, their relationship deteriorates. In May 1774 they become King and Queen. Four years, later, there is still no heir and her brother Joseph (Danny Huston) concerned for his sister’s continued presence in French court life visits and explains the intricacies of sexual intercourse and the important of children to both, and nine months later in December 1778 Marie give birth to a daughter. As French financial troubles worsen, their life of extreme luxury and profligacy makes them increasingly unpopular with the French people. She has an affair with Count von Fersen (Jamie Dornan) whose look was modelled on Adam Ant (the soundtrack features two of his hits with the band Adam and the Ants). She has further children in 1781, 1785 and 1786 (the last child subsequently dies). As the French Revolution begins to erupt, they become the target of hatred but decide to stay in France unlike the many nobles who escaped. The last shots of the film are of the palace being stormed and the Royal Family being taken away in June 1792. She would be executed by guillotine in October 1793.

There is no attempt by any of the cast to use French or Austrian accents, allowing the cast the freedom to concentrate on their physical and emotional performances. The period covered in the film is from 1768 to 1792, yet there is no attempt to age them, the passing of time instead being shown through the portraits and the number of children depicted in them.

The high-energy score features tracks from 1980s British New Romantic bands Adam and the Ants (‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’) and Bow Wow Wow (‘I Want Candy’ and ‘Aphrodisiac’). These are interspersed with tender and heart-breaking moments displaying the pain, confusion and anguish of this young girl out of her depth, played out against a backdrop of more subdued pieces.

Antoinette is shown as a fragile porcelain doll; when she overhears spiteful gossip about her being barren soon after she becomes an aunt, she rushes to a quiet room, leans against a wall, slides to the ground and sobs. What does a young woman do when so alone? She eats pastries, buys new shoes, hats and clothes – which the film's next energetic montage set to the tune of 'I Want Candy’ shows.

Whereas many critics found the juxtaposition of the old and the new unappealing, Pam Cook wrote, ‘Coppola’s use of travesty in her biopic has contributed to dividing critical opinion. Travesty, a common device in theatre and literature, irreverently wrests its source material from its historical context, producing blatantly fake fabrications that challenge accepted notions of authenticity and value. It brazenly mixes high and low culture, and does not disguise its impulse to sweep away tradition. In the case of historical fictions, travesty collapses boundaries of time and place through pastiche, emphasising that history is in the eye of the beholder, whether group or individual. Travesty is playful, but it can have a serious purpose: to demonstrate that the past is always viewed through the filter of the present, and represents the vested interests of those who reinvent it.’ Pam Cook, Sight and Sound (November 2006)

This is a sympathetic portrait of Marie Antoinette. Perhaps given Coppola’s upbringing in a privileged sheltered environment, she felt a kinship with this young woman whose ability to do her job is constantly questioned. She portrays Antoinette’s luxury as little more than a gilded cage.

The film opened the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it was received by a chorus of boos, slow hand claps, catcalls and cheers. Reviews were largely negative, with many criticising its tone and lack of historical integrity.

Jonathan Romney wonders, ‘how many critics conflated the two [Marie Antoinette and Sofia Coppola], dismissing the film as really obliquely autobiographical. Some detractors complained that the film wasn’t a serious historical drama; others were disappointed it was a more traditional heritage outing than anticipated, rather than the radical genre-busting promise by the chic cast.’ (Romney 2006)

It failed to recoup even half of its $40 million budget at the US box office, taking $15 million domestically. It proved more popular overseas and its final world-wide box office $60 million.


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