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Cakes, Manolo Blahniks, and Politics: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

by Amy Walter

Sofia Coppola's 2006 film 'Marie Antoinette' delves into the life of the titular 19-year-old queen.

While previous retellings were far more critical, Coppola tells the story through the female gaze - indulging the audience with cakes, bows, and heels, all lit by the haze of candles and the score of '80s classics. The film remains popular within the rising world of unapologetic femininity.

Sofia Coppola aimed to modernise the story of Marie Antoinette, telling IGN that when she saw "Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, and they were just speaking in their regular accents, they felt like real people to me, as opposed to someone living in some other era I couldn’t relate to. So, I was trying to take away as many kinds of period-film-genre clichés and simplify it in a way that could be relatable on a human level." 

By modernising the film, Coppola created a story that, though rooted in a girl marrying to save a monarchy, remains familiar in its themes of teen angst.

The plot follows a young Marie Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, as she grapples with her newfound responsibility of being the queen of France. As the film progresses, we know contextually that tensions between the people and the monarchy began to rise, yet 'Marie Antoinette' remains committed to its sympathetic lens, opting for a more intimate look at the queen’s experience with motherhood and a rumoured affair. 

However, by the end, the queen succumbs to external pressures, the façade of never-ending parties and towering wigs eventually crumbling. This leads up to the French revolution, where we see a once-ignorant queen bow to the very people she rules.

Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette has become the poster child for aesthetic edits on TikTok and hazy images on Pinterest. Where most portrayals have focused on the idea of Antoinette, Coppola chooses to focus on her experience. As the audience grows up with her from mere adolescence to adulthood, we begin to sympathise with her, from the very first moment when her dog is taken away. 

Dunst’s common charisma is reflected in her portrayal of Marie, who uses humour to allow her to adjust. We begin to relate to her universal want of escapism and requited love, as well as how she begins to deal with such wants through spending. Leaning into the party girl lifestyle so synonymous with elite society. Rather than Coppola defining her by her role as mother or a wife, she is portrayed like any other woman grappling with such an adjustment.

The costume design for the historical drama remains one of the most celebrated amongst both film and fashion lovers, securing a cover for the September 2006 issue of 'Vogue.' It all started when Coppola approached costume designer, Milena Canonero, with a box of pastel macaroons for a baseline of the confectionery colour palette. Canonero told the Times she wanted to “simplify” the “very heavy look of the 18th century,” making it believable yet stylised for a modern audience.

Whether it's custom Manolo Blahniks or Converses left in a scene, the film emphasises the contrast of opulence versus youth. The visual storytelling is furthered through fashion choices.

While Marie Antoinette is left without an heir, she indulges in the tallest hair and brightest dresses as a coping mechanism. When she does have an heir, she opts for the less constricting choice of a chemise Gaulle, which was incredibly light and breezy, reflecting her newfound peace. But by the end of the film, the viewer once again finds Marie in a more constricting silhouette, symbolic of the uncomfortable tensions between her and the people of France. The successful stylisation of 18th-century fashion gained Milena Canonero an Oscar for best costume design.

Concerning the 2006 film, there are many stylistic similarities between her earlier work, most notably 1999’s ‘The Virgin Suicides.’ Once again, opting for 35mm film, Coppola creates a hazier, intimate feel. We see a repetition of the use of wide shots, something previously displayed in all of Coppola’s works. For ‘Marie Antoinette,’ the director's choice to do this points to Antoinette’s lack of control, forced into a loveless marriage where the pressure begins to build. The film also contrasts the initial outrageous parties to when Antoinette finally begins to feel at home. While 'I want candy' begins to play after Antoinette breaks down, the audience is welcomed to a pink façade of glamour. A montage of bow-covered heels, dismembered cakes, and pouring champagne fills the screen. Yet, later in the film, we are met with a far calmer portrayal, reflected in a slow-moving boat ride and the subtle movement of fingers trailing along grass. Coppola, again, utilises the location to depict the mindset of her heroines.

Despite the praises of the film's artistic choices, it remains rooted in similar criticisms seen in previous Sofia Coppola work. Many were critical of the movie’s empathetic lens to the rich and privileged while the rest of France suffered as a result. While ‘Marie Antoinette’ shows the young queen as the victim, it would be naïve to ignore the fact she did make choices which were at times the wrong ones. The far harsher reality was that of the working class during the 18th century.

While many starved, Antoinette remained out of touch with the sufferings of the poor. Some argue Sofia Coppola was too close to the source material, similarly, coming from a privileged family, meaning she lacked an ability to critique the teen queen due to her empathetic and at times misguided view. By the release of ‘Marie Antoinette’ in 2006, criticisms also began to rise towards Coppola's homogeneous casting. With white, thin actresses being the common theme in her casting choices.

Within the media, Marie Antoinette has become a caricature of the ruling class rather than a persona, her legacy defined by the saying “let them eat cake.” Despite this villainization from the mainstream, she has also become an iconic figure within pop culture. Whether it’s Madonna performing as her at the 1990’s MTV awards or Antoinette-inspired looks resurfacing every Halloween, she has remained interlinked within modern culture. As for the 2006 retelling, it remains popular for its indulgence of femininity, paying homage to girlhood even in an 18th-century context.

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