Marie Antoinette

While doing a google search for “sofia coppola racist” I came across the following description at Racialicious of the theory behind all of Sofia’s films:

Life should come easy and it does only until you’re forced to live it (which is so mean and so the fault of patriarchy/foreigners or meanies/POCs/peasants) and when you are it isn’t because a world exists outside of you but simply because the world is intruding on you as you (special white women) are the center of the universe.

That about sums it up. I saw Marie Antoinette and was irritated by her presentation of Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s mistress, who came from the poorest of the poor and is portrayed as a crude, obnoxious, social-climbing bitch. She burps. She makes out with the king at the dinner table. She wears darkly- and brightly-colored clothing, that period’s version of “trampy.” And, though the real du Barry was blonde and blue-eyed, Coppola has cast the dark and very Italian-looking Asia Argento as the beast. All others at court are fair and light-haired (well, most wear those ridiculous gray wigs so sometimes it’s hard to tell, but no one is in the least ethnic-looking save du Barry). So once again in Coppola’s world, anyone not born rich and anyone who looks different is ridiculed, made a cheap stereotype. I’m not so much offended any more by her obliviousness to her own classism as I am disappointed by the lack of imagination. She so often falls back on cheap over-used jokes and stereotypes that you’d think a Yale graduate could come up with something more subtle and textured than that.

Of course, the real du Barry may not have been the most pleasant person to be around, I don’t know. But in a film that portrays Marie Antoinette sympathetically, and basically as a rich American teenager, Marie’s disgust with du Barry is disturbing because the film then wants us to support this exclusion of the only outsider in the entire film. Her court becomes her own gang of mean girls supporting her and excluding the dark and crude du Barry. Marie is shown to be amazingly accepting of all the ridiculousness of court life–she good-naturedly rolls her eyes but accepts that there are 30 court ladies standing at her bed every morning waiting for her to wake so they can watch her be dressed, she good-naturedly accepts that her husband won’t/can’t have sex with her for 7 years after they are married despite the vicious rumors about the reasons they are still childless, she good-naturedly accepts his weird obsessions and quirks…but du Barry, this she cannot accept. A low-class burping beast in her court? Never. Anything done by the upper-class is amusingly quirky; nothing of the lower class is tolerated (except for well-behaved servants who clean up after your lavish parties). Plus, it’s precisely these peasants/outsiders who later want to lop off poor Marie’s head.

It’s the same issue I had with the portrayal of the lounge singer in Lost in Translation. She is utterly ridiculous, and it’s fine to have characters who are ridiculous, but if Sofia could just include one small gesture, a look, something to give that character a small amount of humanity, it wouldn’t be so irritating. Instead they are completely dismissed as useless human beings. And these people always exist outside the rich main character’s world.

Part of me is hesitant to even bring up the issue of racism/classism because by doing so I become exactly the person her films is trying to vilify–I am one of those peasants with torches and muskets rioting outside Versailles calling for the poor burdened queen’s head. I was also one of those peasants while watching Lost in Translation, and also Virgin Suicides. I am one of those meanies intruding on Sofia’s perfect world and trying to force her to acknowledge reality. And there is something to be said about the way we watch movies, the way we demand to see suffering of the rich and elevation of the poor and downtrodden. I had to acknowledge that part of what irritated me about Lost in Translation is that it was about a couple of rich people who weren’t apologizing for being rich. That’s what we demand of rich characters in films. Should they have to? I don’t know. But it’s not just that. Her characters are rich and they ridicule anyone who isn’t. And they get away with it. That’s the extra step she takes that makes her films unsympathetic to me. I keep thinking (hoping?) that with each of her films she’s trying to remake Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy, where a rich couple travels–yet stays in their isolated bubble–through Italy. These people don’t apologize for being rich but their isolation from reality is highlighted, especially in the final scene, where they grasp for each other among a sea of peasants–giving up their attempt to enter reality and returning to their isolated bubble. This is a whole, complete, subtle, and complex treatment of the issue and I think it’s what Sofia is striving for. But she has missed the mark every time.

-isms aside, the film had other flaws. The acting was horrible throughout, especially Dunst and Jason Schwartzman. But there’s not much they could have done with such bad dialogue. The modern music was not too distracting so long as it was not diegetic, but once it became so it was very irritating–in a party scene the revelers danced to Siouxie and the Banshees. And the film runs so quickly through historic events, touching so slightly on them, that a lot of it probably didn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t know the story already. Of course a light touch fits with the themes of Marie’s obliviousness, but it’s not handled properly here–bringing them up so quickly only confuses people.

But as I said with Lost in Translation–while I am irritated by the themes in Sofia’s films, I am glad she at least has them. She has a point of view. She has a set of issues she keeps dealing with in each film. She is an auteur.

And besides, those bored rich bitches really need someone to voice their pain.

8 Responses to “Marie Antoinette”

  1. November 13th, 2006 | 1:15 pm

    ms. coppola’s unfortunate guinea-bashing tendencies probably come from her father francis ford. her first appearance in front of the camera was as an infant in The Godfather, the first installment of the saga which exposes dagos as the uncouth, libidinous, fratricidal social-climbing peasants they truly are.

  2. November 13th, 2006 | 1:28 pm

    you are right, it is a family tradition of italian self-loathing.

  3. Sam
    November 13th, 2006 | 5:39 pm

    Why should the rich apologize for being so in movies? There are numerous movies where people aspire to be or become newly rich and no one questions that. They cheer. I think you are reacting more to differences of class. Which is interesting because many rich people (most?) don’t have class. Just money. The characters in Lost don’t ridicule people for not being rich, they just operate in a different sphere, much like everyday people on a subway. Plus, I would argue that Scarlett Johansen’s karaoke singing friends in Tokyo are very middle class.

    In any event, pish-posh.

  4. November 13th, 2006 | 9:03 pm

    “Why should the rich apologize for being so in movies?” um thanks re-asking the same question i just asked. and yes, i am reacting to class, that’s what the whole post is about. and i think you missed something–i’m talking about marie antoinette, not lost in translation. go eat some more cake, blueblood.

    and i will repeat what i once wrote about lost in translation awhile back–there are ways to register difference, even radical difference, with respect. without buffooning people or dismissing them as useless human beings. that is something sofia does not yet know how to do, perhaps because she isn’t interested in it.

  5. Sam
    November 14th, 2006 | 12:00 pm

    I dismiss you and your bourgious ideas. Adieu.

  6. david chien
    December 6th, 2006 | 3:08 pm

    your review NAILED it.

    i really hated this movie. sofia needs to, well…grow up!

  7. Vanessa
    October 26th, 2007 | 8:04 am

    “Of course, the real du Barry may not have been the most pleasant person to be around, I don’t know.”

    If you don’t know, then maybe you should not be writing about it, but reading about it. If you did you might find out that Mme Du Barry was in fact very pleasant to be around, a very sweet-natured and generous woman. She wasn’t a bit like her portrayal in Sophia Coppola’s film, of course – but apart from that the movie was, in my view, one of the cleverest depictions to date of the unfortunate French queen. Marie Antoinette was a naive, pretty teenager, born to privilege – but what Coppola shows so well is that she really was the 18th century equivalent of “girls just want to have fun”. She was viewed as a breath of fresh air by many who secretly hated the stuffy etiquette of Versailles. She got into trouble precisely because she was so insouciant – she was a teenager wanting to be a teenager while being thrown into a maelstrom of political complexity that she did not understand at first. As she matured she understood it better but because of her aristocratic heritage she ended up on the wrong side politically. As for Louis – he really was a bit like he is portrayed in the film – in fact he had a physical sexual problem relating to an inability to have a full erection – after minor surgery it was put right and he went on to have normal relations and several children.

    So to David Chien – I think Sofia has already grown up, and understands certain many things about Marie-Antoinette that the majority of people do not. Well done Sofia for a very clever film that evokes the reality of the decadence of Versailles and the poignancy of Marie-Antoinette’s short life in a way that has not been done before.

  8. October 27th, 2007 | 9:40 am

    i did read about it, and found actually the opposite of what you say, as well as other theories. and the rest of what you say is already well-known (and also in contention, there are other historical theories as well about Louis’ sexual dysfunction). your comment adds nothing but some kind of braggadocio that you’ve read a bit about marie antoinette.