“Are we there yet?” asks Marie sleepily from the backseat of her carriage. Her royal Austrian entourage has just pulled up on the French border for a customs inspection which makes even today’s customs inspections look conservative. It’s a child’s question, and that’s fine. Marie was only fifteen when she departed the Hofburg Palace for Versailles to marry the man who would lose his head as Louis XVI. As Marie is passed from Austrian hands into French custody, director Sofia Coppola crafts a shot wherein Kirsten Dunst is at the long end of a hallway, facing away from the camera, partially shadowed. Etiquette requires Marie to take nothing of her Austrian life with her into the French court, which means she must leave behind even her old clothes. When her dress is removed, it is plucked off straight over her head, her arms are raised. Nude for a passing moment, yet revealed indistinctly and from a shadowy distance, Marie is young enough to be undressed like a toddler, but old enough that we can’t look at her openly. The whole film unspools from this uneasy counterbalance.
It is easy to get uppity about Marie Antoinette. When the film was released in 2006, it took a few hits from critics who thought it too light, sweet and insubstantial, much like the pastries and iced cakes the camera lingers over in several scenes. Precious little of the film concerns politics, war, the economy. A single scene passes wherein Louis XVI discusses the American Revolution, though Coppola never weights any scene or passage of her films with discernible importance. Any sixty seconds in a Coppola film has the same value and significance as any other sixty seconds. There is no dramatic rise in the score, no acute camera angles, no rapid cuts. Louis XVI confers with a small council, support will be sent to the Americans, but it is difficult to say whether the previous scene was segueing into this one, or if this scene is segueing into the next. Should we care that the French are supporting the Americans? Will the film follow Louis’ career long enough for us to see the end of the matter? Is it permissible for a storyteller to intentionally stock a story with scenes that don’t matter?
How you answer that last question probably says a lot about whether you think Coppola’s films are any good or not. The matter of mattering is somewhat contested among storytelling theorists. James Wood details the various sides of the debate in his book How Fiction Works. Some say that every moment in a story can’t help but to matter; that a scene is present, that it is, means that it is important and open for investigation. Others argue that the verisimilitude of a film is betrayed if every scene matters; hours and hours of the typical day pass for the typical man, and the events of most those hours are lost from memory because nothing of significance happened. Scenes of waning importance, or no importance at all, allow the viewer to regroup. The mind has a chance to breath, so to speak, just as our days oscillate between activity and passivity.
For those of the latter mindset, Coppola’s films are likely frustrating, as they seem mostly composed of in-between scenes. Marie Antoinette, in particular, is a collage of moments and concerns which seem to weigh little on the collapse of the old regime, which was coming down around Marie and Louis’ ears in the years the film documents. While the film’s aesthetics are anachronistic and veer towards the postmodern and an ersatz avant-garde, it’s best viewed as a work of micro history.
I have sometimes asked my students if they can tell me how many wars America is currently engaged in. One? Two? Six? None? I ask, “If you found out America had declared war on Pakistan this morning, how would your plans change for this weekend?” and they look to one another nervously before asking, “What do you mean, go to war?” Aside of the students related to someone in the service, most of them determine that they would still go to the movies, still go to the game, still study Herodotus for an exam the following week. When I ask them how much their lives have changed since the War on Terror began, they are sometimes hard-pressed to describe any change whatsoever. They are not being unreflective. Their lives do not perceptibly change when taxes are raised or lowered, when this or that is made legal or illegal. While it is big news that a hundred thousand souls perished in a tsunami, they do not recognize a shift in their freedom, their prejudices, their hopes. Is this because they are children? Perhaps, though I don’t know I would answer any differently. Their lives have been more upended by sad novels, failed flirtations, lost wallets.
Marie Antoinette is a film about the moments which shaped a personal history, not a national history. Marie is a child and a queen, and so while in some sense she is the state, inasmuch as she is a modern teenager, the affairs of the state are beyond her. She is troubled when she cannot produce an heir, though I have seen high school grads in films of a contemporary setting far more terrified that they have not been admitted into college. Her fear at not producing an heir seems more bound up in satisfying her mother, who writes to her continually on the matter. She is given to endless distraction in clothes and parties; like a child, she isn’t content that any of the adults she lives with is really making the most of their adult-powers.
Though I have seen the film nearly twenty times, the passage of the second act into the third is so elusive, I cannot put my finger on how it happens. Marie gives birth to a child, a girl, and disappoints the nation, then gives birth to another girl. She spends more and more time in a “retreat” Louis built for her, playing with her children, and receives the news that there is no money for garden work she wants done with indifferent confusion. The narrative ever-so-slightly draws in around Marie’s inability to give birth to a boy, which becomes a token of her permanent outsider status. Even at her moment of greatest maturity- when she refuses to abandon Louis when the mob is at the door- she does so against the wishes of the palace guard and council. It seems she gave birth to girls through some mystery of her own will. We see her several times before noticing she has become an adult. Time passes indiscriminately, subjectively.
The final shots of the film echo the first shots. Marie enters Versailles with a long view of the lawn, and departs similarly in the closing moments, quietly, as we all know, to go to prison and stand trial for crimes she did not commit. I suppose we know that every fictitious character will ultimately die in the unwritten pages and unfilmed reels which invisibly follow our final knowledge of their lives. The visually twinned entrance and exit of Marie suggests a loop, though, as if we might blink and the carriage would simply run the other way back to the palace doors. Coppola trades in an ephemerality so fine, we can hardly say whether the fog is burning off or settling in.