“The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure...” Marie Antoinette begins with a nudge, a wink and a lick, Kirsten Dunst’s Queen of Cake reclining on a chaise lounge, staring straight at the camera as she tongues pink icing sugar off her fingers. On the soundtrack, ’80s punk band Gang Of Four play ‘Natural’s Not In It’, a furious Marxist critique of commodification, materialism and the buy-buy-buy ethos rolled into a savagely ironic three minute pop song. It’s a bold opening that says: never mind the bollocks, here’s Marie Antoinette.
That same punk aesthetic transforms the story of France’s last queen into a whirl of costume drag, an Adam And The Ants pop video filtered through Pretty In Pink and Clueless, shot on location in the venerable republic’s mothballed palaces. Iconoclastic, subversive, anachronistic, this is a biopic that’s not afraid to break all the rules, damning any pretence of historical accuracy as it turns Dunst’s dunce queen into a fondant fancy of flirts and skirts.
Rebellion’s at the heart of Marie Antoinette, though not in the way you might expect. Yes, the closing 20 minutes shoehorn in La Révolution – the bread crisis; the storming of the Bastille; the braying mob – but it’s not what the movie’s interested in. Marie Antoinette’s real rebellion is more personal, Coppola giving a two-fingered salute to the conventions of the genre, to those who said Lost In Translation was a fluke, even to Daddy himself.
It’s not hard to read the movie as an autobiographical take on celebrity royalty, French aristocrats recast as bored suburban teens straight out of a Gus Van Sant movie (hello Jason Schwartzman). Born into one of Hollywood’s most powerful film-making dynasties, Coppola knows the ennui and excess that comes with privilege. She’s sucked the silver spoon of celebrity till it’s rusted in her gob and this is her coming of age movie, a punk revolt that leads into artistic adulthood. No longer daddy’s little girl, she’s escaped her father’s shadow – recast here, perhaps, as Rip Torn’s philandering, bullish Louis XV. Just compare Sofia and Francis’ films: Marie Antoinette is sassy, spunky, girly, funky; Coppola Snr’s cinema, however magnificent it was back in the day, looks positively old-school in comparison. His idea of costume drama was the anaemic Bram Stoker’s Dracula...
And so, the filmmaking crown is wrestled from father to daughter, old king replaced by young queen. In a Hollywood almost devoid of big-name female directors, Sofia Coppola towers above the competition like one of Dunst’s elongated beehives. She knows what she wants and how to get it – a $40 million budget and full creative freedom on Marie Antoinette – and at just 36, she’s destined for greatness. Still, it’s easy to hear a hint of the filmmaker’s own nervousness in that melancholy line from Louis XVI: “Dear God guide us, for we are too young to reign”. Boos at Cannes from sour-faced French critics must have confirmed her worst fears, but the reality is something else: Marie Antoinette deserves to rule.