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A queen’s coming-of-age in “Marie Antoinette”

In a frilly, peach-colored, Georgian era dress, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) gives an aggrieved look at herself in the mirror. A vase of pink flowers sits to her right on the dresser in the middle ground of the shot.
In a frilly, peach-colored, Georgian era dress, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) gives an aggrieved look at herself in the mirror. A vase of pink flowers sits to her right on the dresser in the middle ground of the shot.

Watch Sofia Coppola’s decadent 2006 costume drama on the Memorial Union Terrace after dusk on July 10.

Being a teenage girl sometimes means feeling gazes on your bare skin, forgoing comfort for the sake of people-pleasing, and having the last threads of your childhood slip out of your grasp before you realize you weren’t ready to grow up yet. It’s full of generalizations, but also truths that transcend identity and allow for young girls to develop a melancholy sort of solidarity with one another—even with the Queen of France who ruled in the late 1700s. 

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), screening as part of the WUD’s Lakeside Cinema series on Sunday, July 10, after dusk (approximately 9 p.m.), is an artistic mirror and facilitator of such gendered recognition and development. The film re-tells the story of Marie Antoinette—the villainous icon of the French Revolution who famously ended up at the guillotine—but takes stylistic and historical liberties in order to simply tell the story of a girl. It follows Marie (Kirsten Dunst) as she marries King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) at 14, becomes Queen at 19, and flees the Palace of Versailles at 34.

Coppola’s film so successfully pairs the muddled, weighty history of 18th century France with the pure sensibilities of a coming-of-age narrative, striking a balance between the two’s assumed aesthetics. Visually, recreations of the extravagant, frilly fashion of the era makes the screen a dream of pastels at every change of scene. Milena Canonero—who won an Oscar for her costume design in the film—did not stray from the daunting task of creating obnoxiously wide dress cages (crinolines) or tall powdered wigs. 

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Simultaneously, in the auditory realm, the chaos of the court is backed by a post-punk and new wave soundtrack that includes everything from The Cure’s “Plainsong” to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” While following the musical trends established in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost In Translation (2003), it’s all the more outstanding for the work it does in persuading modern audiences to identify with the humanity of a woman and society that sparked a bloody, violent hatred in the working classes more than 200 years ago.

As Coppola told The New York Times in 2006, she “wanted to make a personal story and not a big epic historical biopic.” Within the first 10 minutes of the film, she paints a clear mission statement, masterfully depicting the sensation of losing one’s childhood at the hands of feminine expectations. As Marie arrives at the border of France and Austria, an important Comtesse tells her that, to become the Dauphine of France, she must leave her home behind. 

On the Austrian side, Marie is dressed in a simple, white gown with tousled, unkempt hair. Put through the tent that spans the two countries, though, she is literally and figuratively stripped to a vulnerable, naked state. The unsentimental eyes of political officials and ambassadors watch her say goodbye to lifelong friends, tearfully hand off her pet dog, and undress. Emerging on the French side, her hair is tightly wound and powdered. Her blue dress squeezes her into a womanly figure; her cheeks lose their natural rosiness. And despite the grandiose, exaggerated handing-off ceremony that seeks to mold her into the divine shape of Queen, two lower-ranking women snicker, “She looks like a child,” at her introduction, culpable accessories to the same disheartening process they likely underwent themselves. 

And she is a child, only 14 years old and unsure of herself. While Schwartzman gets to play the aloof, humorously awkward prince, Dunst miraculously captures the insecurities of girlhood with a range of expressions, depicting timidity, wry wit, and the nuanced immaturity that comes with having everything and nothing at the same time. She plays a scared teenager, a reckless twentysomething, an exhausted wife and mother, and an exiled queen in a matter of two hours, but still manages to relay a true humanity. “Louis wouldn’t sleep with her, so she wanted to go out and party—like someone in a bad marriage going shopping. It just seemed like the same old story,” Coppola said in the Times interview. 

Of course, history repeats and mimics itself in war and fashion and the complex emotional states of young girls, and therein lies the paradoxically casual and ornate artistry of Marie Antoinette. It is comically ludicrous and relatably devastating, all at once. 

“This is ridiculous,” Marie says, as she partakes in a custom that forbids her from dressing herself on her first morning in the palace. 

“This, Madame, is Versailles,” is the explanation she gets.

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