Thursday, November 16, 2006

Let Them Eat Brains - Thoughts on Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette

I watched the fairly empty and completely uninformative movie Marie-Antoinette the other day – really a film which is only of interest as a clever commentary on cluelessness.

Many of us, after all, know who Marie-Antoinette was, have some idea of how the majority of people living in France suffered great poverty and deprivation under her reign, and know that eventually she was beheaded following the French Revolution. So the film “works” for us in that we see Kirsten Dunst playing a monarch concerned with pastries, clothes, lovers, theatre and her own marriage and children... and largely oblivious to all else. This “all else” is completely missing from the film right up until the last five minutes, when suddenly the king and queen must flee Versailles as a revolution suddenly sweeps in.

To those who don’t know their French history, the masses must appear as a jarring and improbable deus ex machina. Stranger than fiction, so to speak.

Which could be seen as a clever commentary on many things. The way many are blinkered by their class perspective. The fact that your ignorance won’t save you, won’t be accepted as an excuse. Perhaps even that the make-believe world of American civilization is not only unreal, but blocks so many of us – so many of us sitting in theaters here watching this clueless queen – from seeing the real life drama we are all enmeshed in. What we think is important in our lives may not be what turns out to be important, may not even be relevant when seen in its proper perspective.

Or it could just be a completely vapid movie, tarnished by the need to mention that the masses did indeed intrude on Marie-Antoinette’s life, no matter how little she may have thought about them before they took center stage. A movie that otherwise would have just been a watered down version of Sofia Coppola’s previous exploration of emptiness (in which Dunst played a more minor role), the horrendous Lost In Translation, albeit with prettier clothing and no Japanese extras.

That a politically interesting film about Marie-Antoinette could have been made goes without saying. Everything from the crimes of the monarchy to the way in which popular revolt was channeled both into support to the bourgeoisie and into a kind of xenophobic misogyny directed at the Austrian-born queen, who was an accused of engaging in incest, bestiality and lesbianism in revolutionary porn pamphlets with names like “The Royal Dildo.”

I don’t know if this reminds me of Hugo Chavez claiming Condoleeza Rice wants to bed him (“a sacrifice i am not willing to make for my country,” said the Venezuelan left-populist) or the kind of fun the tabloids have with Hillary Clinton... and i certainly am not implying that the queen (any more than Rice or Clinton) had a right to hold onto her head... but y’know it’s an angle i’d love to see explored more.

An interesting cultural cross-connection in the movie: if you watch it, pay attention to the scene as the royal family flee Versailles. What does this remind you of? It’s twilight and it’s quiet and it’s creepy, and the only characters are looking out at an empty landscape. What they had previously known as a tamed garden now appears as supernatural wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but my conditioned reflexes went “Where are the zombies?”

It’s true: the peasant mob of old reappears in all manner of movies as the modern zombie. Subhuman, sub-rational, scary and unpredictable. I’ve suggested before that zombies are pop cultural representatives of the insurgent oppressed, embodying all the things the privileged expect of their lessers. Part Mau Mau, part leper, cannibalistic and all bad. Or at least so the metropolitan mind would have it.

Imagine the possibilities were George Romero to make the next movie about this headless monarch...


  1. I managed to see Sofia's movie way back in June in Europe, and I have to say I was unimpressed .. it was all very pretty to look at, but as you pointed, empty and, to me often boring, especially during the 45 minutes or so that could be called Birthing Rituals of the Rich and Famous

  2. Well, since you mention it: