I have an Austrian princess on the brain. She’s in my head, singing me songs, diving through my closet and crawling out of my handbag. She’s everywhere, and I might as well get used to it. I’ve been immersed in Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion – What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution for weeks, and now I’ve seen what all the fuss is about: Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette.
Like that other sumptuous period drama of a few years ago about a big boat meeting an iceberg, we all know how this movie is going to end. Yet who knew it would be done with this exuberance, decadence, and style? For a brief few seconds in the opening credits, you’re treated to the ultimate summation shot: la reine, in dishabille, coiffured with an extravagant pouf, having her new pink shoes put on her feet as her fingers dive into a gigantic pink cake. Cakes, coiffures, shoes, and pink. The end.
While Caroline Weber’s book paints a more realistic portrait of the misunderstood queen, the confection on film is much more fun to endure. Barring a few slip-ups in casting and cut-aways, (do we really need the fantasy shot of Count Fersen on a rearing horse? I mean, he’s hot, but that’s a bit heavy-handed Mademoiselle Coppola…) the entire thing is a gluttonous delight of striped nosegay silks, little dogs, glittering gems, ruffles, ribbons, and feathers. A whole film of not a whole lot, but when it looks this good and is set to a soundtrack of punk rock, who cares?
The crowning achievement of this film is that it was filmed at Versailles. Once one visits that indulgent place, one sees exactly what the revolution was all about. The immediate impression is that someone simply went to town on the gilding of every surface, while the slow-to-apprehend reality of Versailles is that there is practically zero private space anywhere in the entire monstrosity. This is what Coppola captured: the wedding night and later childbirth in the queen’s bedroom absolutely packed to the rafters with people. Imagine that – two of the most intimate moments of your life, and there you are on display for people you don’t even want to talk to when you have your clothes on. The procedures, the protocols, the honors of the toilette – Marie Antoinette was said to have hated all of this pomp and formality of Versailles, preferring the casual informality of her native Hapsburg household wherein she could dress herself.
And boy, could the woman dress! The panniers, the robes a la françaises, the jewelry, the chapeaux… “Which do you like, the sleeve with the ruffles, or the plain?” she asks her advisor from Austria. Every girl dreams of wearing a dress like this, just once, because after five minutes you realize its pure torture. The queen herself preferred a loose-fitted gaulle dress of simple muslin for her days in the fields at the Petit Trianon, yet eventually this attire was deemed inappropriate for the queen. How very different from her earliest days as dauphine when upon her arrival at the French court, her beauty was noted by all with more than a little envy. It seems her natural complexion was so fine that she did not need the enhancements of the usual powders and rouges. Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who painted the queen more than twenty times described her thus in her memoirs of 1835:
Marie Antoinette en Chemise, 1783 - E. Vigee-LeBrun“ But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”
This kind of youthful vitality is perfectly captured in Kirsten Dunst as the young queen, especially when presented in counterpoint to Asia Argento’s delightfully disgusting Madame du Barry. Yet, by the end of the film, the queen has barely aged, and seems overwhelmingly poised in the faced in inherent dangers and terrifying unknowns. The one time Dunst’s dauphine is allowed a well-deserved crying jag is only after the little ladies in fichus cast aspersions on her barrenness. This, on top of her mother’s complaints about her “waistline” takes her over the edge. Caroline Weber talks about Queen Maria Teresa’s harangues about this waistline issue as an ongoing one from years of correspondence between the mother and daughter. Too little a waistline shows the dauphine is still child-less, while too large a waistline is unbecoming a proper lady of the court. In other words: get yourself pregnant, but don’t stop wearing your grands corps - a highly-restrictive corset. (It is always refreshing to hear that the motherly badgering of “you’re too thin, you’re too fat” is one that’s gone on forever.)
Caroline Weber’s lengthy tome discloses all of the ins and outs of Marie Antoinette’s sartorial evolutions. Newly-invented styles turn into maddening fads among the aristocracy who ape the queen to their own financial ruin. A few years later, the queen’s fashion choices lead to her derision and downfall. It’s a familiar story to those of us who know the history of lady politicos. A later French queen (since the French can never decide if they want one or not,) Empress Eugenie, was nicknamed “Empress Crinoline” because of her clothes-horse ways, while years later women such as Eva Peron, Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and even Nancy Regan were derided for their closets-full of excess. But Marie Antoinette is the woman whose indulgences taught everyone else how it’s done, the singular point brought home by Coppola’s film.
The film’s tagline of “The party that started a revolution,” is indeed true: much of the film is devoted the party Marie Antoinette is having while she spends years simply waiting for her husband to touch her. Once the Versailles party of the century begins to wane however, Coppola’s film accelerates and tends to overlook the ravages the queen faced late in life, not to mention the ravages of all-night parties. According to Caroline Weber, the fresh-faced girl that had arrived in France had gained a hardy amount of weight due to finally delivering three children, and had also lost the better-part of her hair. These physical manifestations of the stress of life at Versailles are glossed-over completely, and well they should be in order to keep pace with the film. However, the woman’s life was no fairy tale, so the ending pathos in the golden dawn is lost on most of the audience – we never really bought that it was all fun and games anyway.
Gentlemen be warned: this is one helluva girlie flick. Not a chick-flick per se, but girlier than girlie. The montage of Marie with her two best gal-pals the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac (viva Rose Byrne!) going shoe shopping to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is absolutely visceral in its brightly-colored indulgence. I’ll just say it, the sequence is girl-porn in the best way: shoes that Manolo Blahnik would weep for, diamonds, fluffy pink pastry, you and your best girlfriends downing magnums of champagne along the way. Sofia is no fool – she knows what girls want. (Is that why Marc Jacobs loves her so much?)
Despite its little fumbles, Marie Antoinette is my new favorite film, and I’m already pre-ordering the DVD from Amazon. I’m a sucker for a costume piece, and this is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in years. Perhaps because real life for la reine Marie *was* such a costume-drama, the frothy interpretation in film cannot rightly be classified as a guilty pleasure. A pleasure it is, but who is guilty of enjoying it? It brings a smile to your face, quickens your pulse, and makes you want to paint the chateau pink.