"Let them eat cake."
BY LEZA CANTORAL
Come for the candy, stay for the tragedy.
Sofia’s Marie Antoinette plays like a modern day pop music video. She draws a thematic parallel between Marie Antoinette’s experience and that of modern pop icons. Marie adored fashion and shocked the court with her modern outlook on clothing when she opted to wear peasant garb at her private estate. She loved theater and put on her own plays. She lived glamorously and her personal life was scrutinized by the court and the public: who she slept with, what she bought, what she wore, what she said; it was all fodder for rumor and gossip.
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is not about history, it’s about feelings. As Roger Ebert said, in his 2006 review of the film:
"This is Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you."
The focus is loneliness, isolation, and alienation. When Marie grows frustrated with seducing her unresponsive husband she substitutes fashion and pastries for sex.
The dark side of the princess fantasy is self-destruction. It is ironic that the first role that put Kirsten Dunst on the map was as Claudia, the tormented child vampire in Interview with the Vampire. Claudia comes to resent the vampires Louie and Lestat for making her into a monster: an eternal child; a living doll who can never arouse the lust of a man and live a normal life.
The fantasy of eternal childlikeness has a dark side: arrested development, solipsism, and disassociation from reality. The appeal of Marie Antoinette as a film, is in seeing that fantasy come to life: the beautiful palace, the gorgeous clothes, the delectable pastries; picturing yourself walking through Versailles every morning like it is your home.
Sofia and her crew got to live out that fantasy. They stayed at Versailles for months and were given full access to all the rooms. Sofia is the real princess here. We are witnessing her fantasy, which she ends with a shot of a trashed Versailles, as if the real tragedy is the destruction of her palace.
Marie lost her head for losing touch with reality in her Royal fantasy and turning a deaf ear to an angry country that was plummeting into debt and starvation as she lavished herself and her court with riches beyond their means.
Marie Antoinette’s famous quote is "Let them eat cake." Whether she actually said that or not matters little in public perception. This quote represents a Queen who is out of touch with reality to a grotesque degree.
Her dream life and her dream house all came crumbling down. She wanted all or nothing and she got nothing in the end.
The tragedy of it is that she was set up just to be knocked down, as Roger Ebert said in his review:
"Before she was queen, before she was a pawn, Marie was a 14-year-old girl taken from her home, stripped bare, and examined like so much horseflesh. It is astonishing with what indifference for her feelings the court aristocracy uses her for its pleasure, and in killing her disposes of its guilt."
The story of Marie Antoinette is a tragic one. It is not just the story of a long dead French queen. It is the story of every woman who tries to have it all and in trying to do so, loses it all instead. It is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it is Sylvia Plath losing her husband while writing her poetic masterpiece, Ariel, and gassing herself in her own oven as her babies sleep upstairs, at the tail end of a long and brutal winter.
The message of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a dark one. Being a woman is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you are everyone’s most valued possession. You are the vessel of life. Women are coddled and protected and kept in a state of infancy. The fantasy of being a little girl forever, of being a princess, of being indulged, comes with the dark side of being trapped, manipulated, and repressed.
Sofia invites the audience to experience Marie Antoinette’s blissful ignorance of the desperate situation that was the reality for those not lucky enough to live within the gilded walls of Versailles. Yet, it is her ignorance that becomes her ultimate undoing. She pays the price with her head.
Marie Antoinette’s freedoms are superficial. Like an exotic bird, she is trapped within the golden walls of Versailles. She can flutter her wings all she wants but she can never fly. She can dress up and dress down, but she cannot live her own life on her own terms. Her job is to be the vessel of Royal blood and she becomes the effigy of corruption for an angry mob.
The life of Marie Antoinette is a bittersweet Noir. Her greed and naiveté were her tragic undoing. By wanting to remain a child forever she never gained awareness of reality enough to be able to even save her own neck. She made her own death bed and then she had to lie in it.
Moral of the story: You cannot have your cake and eat it too, no matter how many times Marie Antoinette tells you that you can.
Leza Cantoral is the author of Planet Mermaid and editor of Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective. She writes a feminist column about noir film for Luna Luna Magazine called Shades of Noir and writes about pop culture for Clash Media. Her upcoming collection of short stories, Cartoons in the Suicide Forest, will be coming out later this year through Bizarro Pulp Press. You can find her short stories at lezacantoralblog.wordpress.com and tweet her at @lezacantoral.