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Lost in Versailles

Marie Antoinette

a film directed by Sofia Coppola

1.

An unconventional film asks us to imagine a troubled young woman. In one sense, a superficial one to be sure, this is not at all difficult to do: the exterior of this young woman is an appealing one, and tends to attract the eyes of artists. She is, after all, barely out of her teens, blond, attractive if not a conventional beauty—there is the question of that lower lip—and has an undeniable grace to which complete strangers seem to respond unusually strongly. This reaction, at once aesthetic and emotional, may have to do with the fact that when her story begins, she is clearly stranded in the dangerous territory between adolescence and true womanhood; even after she grows up, and after we know how her story ends, the feelings she tends to evoke in observers are not unmixed with a certain protectiveness.

Her interior life is more complicated. Although she comes from the ruling class, and has been raised to inhabit a comfortable and predictable milieu, this young woman suffers a transformative crisis. Snatched up and taken very far from the safety of her home, she is set down in a (to her) bizarre and inexplicable world: rigidly hieratic, ruled by arcane conventions of speech and behavior that she, like the audience, finds difficult if not impossible to decipher. (The language spoken in this place is not hers, for one thing.)

Perhaps worse, although this woman, young as she is, is married, she is already aware that her marriage is a difficult, perhaps unsalvageable one; her husband’s greatest passion, it would appear, is the complicated mechanical gadgets he likes to fuss with. In an understandable, almost adolescent reaction to all this, there are rebellions: pouty fits, madcap escapades, giddy nocturnal jaunts, flirtations that may or may not be harmless. Such excesses and experimentations, we are meant to feel, are merely means by which this unformed young woman is trying to figure out who she truly is. There is never any real question, in the film, that she is someone worthy of our sympathies and affection.

The foregoing is a fair description of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 movie Lost in Translation, a surprise art-house success about a naive young American woman who, left alone in a luxurious Tokyo hotel while her fashion photographer husband is on assignment, gets a bittersweet introduction to the complexities of grown-up life—not the least of which is a life-altering flirtation with a world-weary film star old enough (as they are both well aware) to be her father. That it is also largely an accurate description of the director’s new film, Marie Antoinette, a highly unconventional biopic inspired by Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic 2001 biography of the hapless last queen of the ancien régime,1 tells you a lot about the director and her preoccupations; and explains a lot, too, about the many attractions, and ultimately the fatal weaknesses, of the new movie.

Marie Antoinette is Coppola’s third film, and the third of her films to deal with the problems of spirited young women chafing at social restraints. Her moody 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides, was based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose distinctive “choral” narrator—a first-person-plural voice representing a group of teenaged boys—looks on as the five lovely daughters of the Lisbon family, crushed by narrow-minded parental repression, kill themselves over the course of some months. Merely the choice to adapt Eugenides’s novel (which, on the face of it, was unfilmable) told you a lot about the first-time director’s offbeat, unemphatic artistic style, so unlike that of her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola. The film itself immediately established what can now be seen as a signature style: a preference for visual mood-setting over narrative vigor as a means of establishing character and themes, a distinctive and sometimes almost surreal use of certain effects (surprising interruptions; extreme, almost intrusive close-ups; evocative use of slow motion), a game, and gamine, willingness to be playful, even irreverent.

This technique well served her particular interest in representing the inner lives of the troubled young women in that first film—women on the verge of adulthood who had not yet found the words to express their seething, confusing feelings; who rely, as Coppola occasionally does, not without a certain wittiness, on the artifacts of pop culture to get their feelings across. (There’s a moving scene in The Virgin Suicides where the girls, virtually imprisoned in their parents’ meticulous, rather soulless house, communicate with the besotted boys by playing favorite pop albums over the phone to them.) It is, indeed, a striking feature of Coppola’s style in that film (and the subsequent ones as well) that the visual is given such preference over the verbal; like that of so many adolescents, the dialogue of her half-grown heroines feels tentative, almost experimental. I have always suspected that you could turn off the sound and watch it with no great diminishing of enjoyment.

This was certainly the case with Lost in Translation, whose very title alerts the viewer to the fact that this is the story of people forced to explore their inner lives not least because they have been deprived of their natural linguistic setting. The film makes an ongoing joke of the difficulties that young Charlotte, a callow would-be writer, and Bob, the emotionally exhausted action-picture star who’s come to Tokyo in order to make a lucrative if inane liquor advertisement, have in making themselves understood during their sojourn; everything from ordering sushi to taking direction from a Japanese director becomes fraught with unease, even peril. It’s as much for this reason, this failure in the ability to communicate, as for any other that the two Americans fall, not without a certain weary relief, into each other’s arms. (Or almost fall: as in its model, Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, there is never a physical consummation.) Not insignificantly, the moment when their feelings for each other become clear takes place in a karaoke bar, when they are merely mouthing the words of others—a scene noteworthy not least because it’s so similar to the record-player scene in The Virgin Suicides.

This distrust of language and pre-occupation with the limits of what can be communicated in words—the film ends, famously, with Bob whispering something into a tearful Charlotte’s ear as he takes his leave of her; we never learn what it is he says, although we see her reacting to it—is compensated for by a powerfully evocative visual style already much evolved from that of The Virgin Suicides. Feelings of displacement, loneliness, and emotional disconnectedness are moodily conveyed by Coppola’s camera: of particular note (not least because they reappear in Marie Antoinette) are jumbled shots of local scenery passing by in an artistic but incomprehensible blur, as if the eye of the observing subject—the frightened young woman—can’t quite absorb it all.

These repeated shots of Tokyo skyscrapers whizzing frenetically, confusingly by, the garishly colored neon advertisements and traffic signs flashing their incomprehensible (to Charlotte) seductions and warnings, are beautifully balanced by moments of almost poetic stillness that are equally eloquent in their ability to tell us, even if she cannot, what the heroine is thinking. There is a remarkable scene in which Charlotte, suspecting her husband of infidelity with the vacuous film star he’s photographing, flees the crush of Tokyo and silently observes a traditional wedding procession in Kyoto. The slow-motion progression of the bridal party, immaculate in its traditional makeup and dress, and the seemingly random but somehow pointed way that the camera has of lingering in close-up on a hand, a delicately rouged cheek, or an eyelid, tell you more about the tension between the life that Charlotte wants and the life that she’s got right now than a long monologue could ever do.

The success of Lost in Translation suggested, in retrospect, the limitations of the earlier film. Although striking and often effective, The Virgin Suicides suffered from a lack of focus—a problem exacerbated by the director’s already impressionistic tastes—that derived, at least in part, from the source material: the sense of diffuseness you had at the end owed much to the fact that there were, at least in theory, five tragic heroines competing for the filmmaker’s, and the audience’s, attention. (The most effective bits come in the first third of the movie, which is the story of how the first of the five comes to kill herself; what is meant to be the horrific climax, with the remaining four doing themselves in all at once, feels curiously rushed and flat. Film, with its single eye, is probably not the right medium for “choral” narration and plots.) In Lost in Translation, a film that she wrote as well as directed and over which, therefore, she had total control, Coppola was able to concentrate her distinctive eye on one particular young woman in a particular bit of trouble, with affecting results.

2.

The fourteen-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, known by the affectionate nickname Antoine at home but renamed Marie Antoinette with an eye to her French marriage, newly arrived at Versailles from Vienna, was nothing if not a particular young woman in a particular bit of trouble. She was raised at the (comparatively, as such things go) relaxed court of her mother, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa: despite the 1,500 liveried lackeys who could be made to materialize on state occasions at the Hofburg and at Schönbrunn, family life for the royal Habsburg couple and their sixteen romping children was pleasantly disorganized, full of amateur musicales and sledging parties. The impulsive, good-natured, not terribly bright young girl was betrothed, in a typical bit of matrimonial diplomacy, to the equally young French dauphin; her mother was eager for an alliance with France.

And so off she went, in an immense and magnificent cavalcade of nearly sixty elaborate coaches—twenty thousand horses were said to have been used, so many were the changes of animals necessary to transport the vast procession from Austria to France—with the results that are, by now, familiar to all. The cold marriage to the well-meaning but awkward, sexually dysfunctional Louis Auguste, later Louis XVI; the shame that went with not being able to produce a child for a full eight years, while all around her the brittle court ladies gossiped and smirked. (It took the quite explicit intervention of Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, to get the French king in sexual working order.)

And then, her notorious resort to a frivolous life of nonstop amusement and nonstop spending on a scale that repeatedly brought down the wrath of her sage, disappointed mother among many others. “I,” wrote Maria Theresa, in one of a barrage of scolding letters that winged their way with brutal frequency from Schönbrunn to Versailles, “who love my little Queen and watch her every footstep, cannot hesitate to warn her of her frivolousness in this matter.” To which admonitions Antoinette replied, in a sulky letter to Mercy, the Empress’s ambassador to France, “What does she want? I am terrified of being bored.”

After long-awaited motherhood—and, perhaps, an affair with the dashing Swedish aristocrat Axel Fersen—had mellowed her, she undertook a different kind of flight from the pettiness, repressions, and intrigues of court life, for which she had neither any taste nor—disastrously, as it turned out—any talent. This flight was meant to be the inverse of her earlier emotional escape: an escape not, on the face of it, into material excess, but rather from it—to the relatively private, languorous, unfettered life she cultivated with her Private Society at the Petit Trianon and at the Hameau, the “Hamlet,” her model rustic village. Yet even the escapist fantasy of a “simple life” came at a scandalously excessive price; the final bill was nearly two million livres. (“It is likely enough that the Little Trianon cost huge sums of money,” the deposed queen admitted at her show trial in October of 1793, where the infamous subject of her lavish expenses was among the few legitimate cases that could be made against her, “and perhaps more than I intended, for I gradually became involved in unexpected disbursements.”)

In consequence, and rather typically of this well-intentioned but clueless woman, one known for her extraordinary grace of carriage and posture who yet managed to stumble, in all matters of what we today might call PR, with shocking regularity, this second flight from the unnaturalness of the life she was forced to live had the effect of further degrading her reputation. For she alienated not only an uncomprehending, increasingly resentful, and gossip-hungry public, to whom the tales told of private royal gatherings far from the prying eyes of court could mean only one, scandalous thing; but also the social power base of the jealous and excluded court itself; so that by the time the Revolution came, Antoinette was utterly isolated from the people, from her court—from everyone but the few intimates who themselves, eventually, left as well.

It’s easy to see how Sofia Coppola, with her artistic interest in the emotional lives of troubled young women forced to choose between inner impulses and external obligations, would have been moved by the sympathetic presentation of the Queen’s hapless life in Fraser’s somewhat revisionist biography, and would choose it as the subject of her next film—a period film about a subject very much alive for this particular filmmaker. And, it would seem, very much alive to the general public, as suggested not only by the ongoing stream of biographies, novels, films, and documentaries about Antoinette, but by the intense emotional reaction to her most recent avatar, Princess Di: another clueless, well-intentioned teenager married off into a cynical court who found distraction first in spendthrift excess and devotion to fashion, and then in motherhood and an attempt to find some serious and private satisfaction in a life that had to be lived in the public eye; another woman, heedless and foolish at first, who seemed to achieve some real distinction as a person only at the time of her death, in shockingly violent circumstances, in her late thirties.

It’s a measure of how greatly this little-girl-lost theme resonates with Coppola that the best parts of her new movie are those in which she frees herself from the conventions of standard film biographies and allows herself to imagine the inner life of a woman whose exterior—her image, her much-reported words and deeds—we have come to know so well. Particularly at the beginning of the movie, there are scenes of great charm and freshness that suggest what it might have been like to be the immature and hapless object of so much imperial pomp. A sequence devoted to the progress of the young archduchess toward Versailles (the grand procession reduced here, no doubt for budgetary reasons, to two coaches) conveys the rather boring reality of that famous journey: you see Antoine looking out the window of her overdecorated coach at the seemingly endless procession of stark, early-spring trees (shades of Lost in Translationhere); napping; desultorily playing cards with her ladies; gazing hopefully at a rather poignantly flattering miniature of her betrothed; and—best of all—amusing herself by breathing on the windows and doodling in the condensation of her own breath, a childish game as likely to have been played in 1770, you suddenly realize, as in 1970. At one point, in a plaintive child’s voice, she asks the child’s perennial question: “Are we there yet?” It’s a wonderful touch.

These and certain other scenes of memorable visual effectiveness are rendered with a naturalness, a casualness even, rare in movies about great historical personages. A giddily cut montage, rather like something you’d see in a TV advertisement, of endless pairs of elaborate shoes (designed by Manolo Blahnik) nicely suggests the frenetic pleasure of addictive spending. (The sly inclusion of a pair of contemporary hi-top sneakers, in bubble-gum pink, is a visual analogue for the director’s surprising but generally effective use of pop rather than period music for the soundtrack; you’re reminded that whatever else these immature royals were, they were, at a certain level, just young people.) Imaginative recreations of, say, the tedious cleaning-up process following a royal debauch—the unpleasant mess of half-eaten pastries and sticky spilled champagne—suggest a reality of life at Versailles you might not have seen before. Still other images wittily suggest the poor queen’s fate: there’s one shot of her in a bathtub in which the water comes precisely up to her neckline, and another at the theater in Paris in which her head is framed, again at the neckline, against a balcony.

Such moments beautifully capture the interstices in the historical record—the episodes in daily life that must have taken place but of which there is, by now, the merest suggestion of the human reality that informed them. A scene of much charm, set in the Hameau, in which we see the Queen engaging in what are clearly unscripted frolics among the flowers with her young daughter Marie-Thérèse, beautifully conveys the happy fulfillment that we know motherhood, and her special retreat, brought to Antoinette; as the little princess ambles about pointing to a little bee that has caught her imagination (“la petite abeille, la petite abeille,” the girl keeps crying), there’s a telling sense of idle maternal contentment.

Typically, the linguistic anomaly of this scene—the American actress playing the Queen is speaking English, the little French actress playing the princess is speaking French—is of no concern to Coppola; the point here, as with so much of this film, is the heady and unexpected beauty of certain images, which so eloquently evoke privileged youth and guileless hedonism—the “sweetness of life” that, we are told, those who did not live before the Revolution can never know. The teenaged Antoinette’s awed first exploration of her fabulous apartments at Versailles (her tentativeness nicely conveyed by the camera, which weaves and meanders as much as she does); a somehow poignant shot merely of ladies’ satintrains as they are dragged through the grass; a scene—at once giddy and strangely, ravishingly languid—in which the young royals, magnificently attired yet utterly youthful, race down a flight of steps in order to witness the sunrise: these linger in the mind long after the movie is over.

A quite different kind of emotion is expressed later on, silently but with equal potency, when the lovesick Queen, coming from a final tryst with Fersen, who must go off to war, returns to court from the Trianon. In a shot framed from a great distance, we see the tiny figure of the Queen slowly, almost painfully ascending a magnificent flight of stone steps toward the palace, virtually dragging herself back to the life from which she cannot escape. Later on, alone in bed, she fantasizes about Fersen, a preposterous image of whom suddenly appears onscreen: grimed with the dirt of battle, wrapped in an enormous billowing cloak, he sits astride a stallion that rears in slow motion—a hyperbolic picture that looks for all the world like the cover of a romance novel. Both times I saw the film the audience laughed nervously at this over-the-top image, but I thought it was right on target. Fersen, after all—so good-looking that he was known in London as “the Picture”—was described by contemporaries as looking like the hero of a novel, and Coppola has found the right imagery to convey his melodramatic allure. She has clearly done some homework.

3.

One of the two great problems of the film is the sense you often get that she’d done her homework rather too faithfully: the languid freshness and visual originality of many scenes that seem evocative of Marie Antoinette’s inner life stand in vivid contrast to the impression often given, as in so many film biographies, that the narrative is ticking off the big moments in the well-known life.

Here Coppola’s film falls apart, because her special gift is for conveying emotional and psychological states suggestively, allusively, and impressionistically, by means of collocations of images; she has less talent for telling a straightforward tale. The movie suffers when you feel, as you often do, that she’s read Fraser’s biography thoroughly and is dutifully reproducing incidents of her subject’s life. Do we really need the story, which Fraser tells in great detail and which Coppola obligingly includes here, of how the dying Louis XV was forced to send away his mistress, Mme du Barry, in order to receive communion on his deathbed? The episode, hastily sketched in and, I suspect, incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the sorry story of the awful death of the Bien-aimé, adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the film’s subject, and ends by being a confusing distraction.

So too many of the episodes taken from the latter parts of Antoinette’s life—which is to say, the part of her life that took place after the crisis that is of real interest to Coppola, which is the crisis of a young girl torn from her natural setting and forced to stay afloat, willy-nilly, in a strange and foreign place. Coppola’s apparent lack of interest in anything outside of the cocooned and photogenic private world of the doomed Queen is evident in the desultory quality of the many stilted moments designed to convey what’s going on in the world beyond Versailles—the kind of clanking scene in which someone says to the King at a meeting of his council, “The Americans are asking for help with their revolution,” or, worse, when we see someone rush up to the King and announce, “The Bastille has been stormed!”

The director tries to cover over her slapdash approach to history with some familiar technical tricks (there’s a little montage in which we see some portraits of the Queen bearing scribbled labels that say things like “Madame Deficit,” and so forth), but it seems an afterthought. Such moments are mere chronological signposts, and the film loses its appeal whenever we are forced to rush by them. Marie Antoinette would have succeeded better purely on formal terms if it had never attempted to include this material—if it had been what I suspect Coppola always wanted it to be, a reverie on what it might have been like to be the very young Marie Antoinette, rather than a straight account of her life. In the end, it’s too little of either.

But then—and this is the second and fatal problem with Coppola’s movie—could you, should you really make a film about Marie Antoinette the victimized young woman as if she were the private person she apparently wished, at times, she’d been? There is something Marie Antoinette-ish about the director’s impatient disdain for the outside world, for the history that was going on all around her sensitive and troubled heroine. (And not just around her, but right in front of her: when the Estates General finally met in May 1789, it was at Versailles—the first great intrusion of the coming Revolution into that enclave—although you’d never guess as much from this movie.)

There’s nothing wrong with being interested in the inner life of a queen who was, in the end quite tragically, nothing more than the “average woman” to which the subtitle of Stefan Zweig’s 1932 biography alludes,2 placed by fate in extraordinary circumstances. But this particular life, the rather ordinary personality whose contours Coppola is interested in delineating here—and which she does delineate so effectively at times—had an enormous impact on history, on real events and persons. That this was already clear to the Queen’s contemporaries is evident from the concerns about the young queen’s behavior expressed by Joseph—no slouch himself when it came to hectoring letters—which are, in hindsight, particularly significant. “In very truth I tremble for your happiness,” he wrote his sister, “seeing that in the long run things cannot go on like this…the revolution will be a cruel one, and perhaps of your own making.”

The provocative relationship between personality and history in the case of Marie Antoinette has indeed been clear to subsequent generations. Writing thirty years after the Revolution, the comtesse de La Tour du Pin, by then a fifty-year-old émigrée, who had been presented at court as a young woman and whose glamorous mother had been a lady-in-waiting to the Queen (“the queen liked my mother, she was always captivated by glitter and my mother was very much the rage”), ruminated on the inevitable lessons to be gleaned from the Queen’s life:

My earliest visit to Versailles was in 1781, when the first Dauphin was born. In later years, when listening to tales of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s sufferings and shame, my mind often went back to those days of her triumph. I was taken to watch the ball given for her by the Gardes du Corps in the Grande Salle de Spectacle at Versailles. She opened the ball with a young guardsman, wearing a blue dress strewn with sapphires and diamonds. She was young, beautiful and adored by all; she had just given France a Dauphin and it would have seemed to her inconceivable that the brilliant career on which she was launched could ever suffer a reverse. Yet she was already close to the abyss. The contrast provides much cause for reflection!3

But the contrast has apparently provoked no such reflection in Coppola, who in her new film gives you, as it were, the dress but not the abyss. To be so unreflective, to want to make a film about Marie Antoinette that ignores who she was in history, seems shockingly naive, intellectually. It’s like wanting to make a film about what it’s like to be a starving artist and deciding to have your hero be the young Adolf Hitler.

And so Coppola’s movie, which works so hard and with such imagination to include in its portrait much that has been ignored, ends up leaving out much that cannot be ignored. Most egregiously, it fails completely to convey in any way why it was that this particular queen aroused the loathing of many in her country. You get absolutely no sense from this film of the immense hatred that was felt for the Queen as the years went by, as she was languishing in her unstructured muslin lévites among the soft pillows of the Petit Trianon, to which Coppola’s swooning camera gives an almost erotic allure. The irony is that this willed ignorance of the larger world disserves Coppola’s artistic and emotional purpose. If the director had gone into all this, she’d have only underscored some of her subject’s sympathetic qualities; for there’s little question that while she could make gross mistakes of judgment, nearly all of the calumnies heaped on Marie Antoinette, including the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace, were absurd and vicious misrepresentations, when not downright inventions.

The result of all this is a film that is ultimately, like its subject, horribly, fatally truncated. Stefan Zweig, a far more tart and critical biographer than Antonia Fraser, wrote of the Queen that “though but little inclined to reflection, she was quick of perception, her tendency being to judge all that happened in accordance with her immediate personal impressions—for she saw only the surface of things.” It would be unfair to say that Sofia Coppola sees only the surface of things—she sees a great deal more, sees what surfaces can be the reflections of, and renders what she sees with artful ingenuity—but in this film, at least, it’s as if she’s been so bewitched by the fabulous beauties of the world she has chosen to depict, the silks and satins and shoes and frosting on the bonbons everyone always seems to be eating, that she’s lost track of crucial events and the inescapable larger meaning of her subject’s life. It seemed significant to me that this movie ends on the day the royal family leaves Versailles for the last time, prisoners of the Revolution—as if Coppola couldn’t bring herself to imagine where it was that all of the indulgence, all of the escapism, that she’s so artfully presented led to in the end.

The final silent image in this movie, so filled as it is with striking and suggestive images, tells you more about Coppola, and perhaps our own historical moment, than it could possibly tell you about Marie Antoinette. It’s a mournful shot of the Queen’s state bedchamber at Versailles, ransacked by the revolutionary mob the night before the Queen and her family were forced to leave, its glittering chandeliers askew, its exquisite boiseries cracked and mangled. You’d never guess from this that men’s lives—those of the Queen’s guards—were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris. But Coppola forlornly catalogs only the ruined bric-a-brac. As with the teenaged girls for whom she has such sympathy, her worst imagination of disaster, it would seem, is a messy bedroom.

  1. 1

    Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).

  2. 2

    Marie Antoinette: Bildnis eines mittleren Charakters (Leipzig: Insel-Verlag); translated as Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman by Eden and Cedar Paul (Viking, 1933).

  3. 3

    Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin, translated by Felice Harcourt (Macall, 1971), p. 19.

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