Issue Number: 93
Don't mention the cake
Is there more to Marie Antoinette than meets the eye? Matt Wolf talks to Oscar-winning director Sofia Coppola about the artistic inspirations for her filmic portrait of the famously frivolous queen
Kirsten Dunst stars in the title role of the film 'Marie Antoinette'. Kirsten Dunst stars in the title role of the film 'Marie Antoinette'. Kirsten Dunst stars in the title role of the film 'Marie Antoinette'.
Filmmakers are the portrait painters of the modern day, bringing to life those realms that are captured for all eternity on canvas. So it makes sense to discuss the RA’s ‘Citizens & Kings’ exhibition in the context of the current film Marie Antoinette, whose writer-director, Sofia Coppola, paints a provocative picture of the queen and her time. In her day, the Austrian-born French monarch hired the portraitist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun to present her as chic yet virtuous – illustrated by the painting of her holding a rose in a pastoral surround. Coppola, by contrast, has created a punk-inspired vision of the teen-queen.
‘We definitely looked at the portraiture of that time,’ says Coppola of the $40 million movie, which is based on the book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser. ‘We even show Marie Antoinette having her portrait painted,’ adds Coppola, who won an Oscar for Lost in Translation. ‘I feel like everything the public knows about Marie Antoinette is based on false information. I didn’t know much about her but I was reading Antonia Fraser’s book and saw that there was this real girl – that so much of what we know about her is based on propaganda. It was interesting to see the other side of what life could have been like for her. I didn’t see her as a villain.’
However, Coppola makes clear that the film’s vision of the notorious queen is hers: ‘We were doing our own version, looking at the paintings mostly to get a sense of her. But, in the end, what we wanted was our take on her life – the paintings were solely for inspiration.’ Also providing input, if not exactly inspiration, was John Currin, the contemporary American painter famed for his florid palette and neo-baroque images of buxom women, who was on hand as the film’s paintings adviser.
Coppola was allowed unprecedented access to Versailles: ‘For me, it was so important to be able to shoot in the real Versailles,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make something more naturalistic, as opposed to the 1938 Hollywood version, which is so artificial. If you tried to recreate it, you wouldn’t be able to, and it was essential that Versailles be a character in the film. We shot entirely on location.
‘The museum was closed on Mondays, and when we were walking through one of the salons to get to the Hall of Mirrors, there was this full-length portrait of Marie Antoinette in her wedding dress, all illuminated – an empty museum with all the lights off except for this one portrait of her.’
The sight sent shivers down Coppola’s spine, although she is careful to separate her project from that of the portrait painters who preceded her. ‘Of course, we’re dealing with that period, but the main source wasn’t actually from paintings,’ she says. ‘I wanted a more “alive” feel, instead of that genre of period films that follows certain rules and a certain tableau way of filming that is usually referenced from paintings.’ (Although Coppola politely names no names, movies like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon spring to mind.)
Coppola’s aim explains her use of twentieth-century pop groups, such as Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and The Cure, among others, on the film’s soundtrack. ‘People lived so differently then, but a couple of hundred years later, we still experience things on a similar level. Marie Antoinette was just a teenager when she went to Versailles; what she wanted was to stay out late and go to parties,’ she continues.
‘So I wanted the film to feel like the audience is back with those characters, living in their time for a few hours, as opposed to looking at the period from a distance in an academic way,’ explains Coppola. ‘To me, film feels more immediate, whereas paintings always have a distance. I was interested in real people behind closed doors – those moments when, I imagine, they relaxed their posture and put their feet up.’
Marie Antoinette doesn’t follow its subject to her famously gruesome end: ‘That’s an interesting story, but for me it is another movie,’ says Coppola. ‘I always thought the eighteenth century would be a fun world to recreate, like a costume party but with a contemporary psychology to it. The film was about trying to understand her voice and make her sympathetic: to see the girl behind all the myths.’
One could almost say that Marie Antoinette has, over time, been lost in translation – in which case, who better than Coppola to restore some humanity to her image?
Marie Antoinette is on general release in the UK; the script, with images from the film, is published in Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola (Rizzoli, £24)
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760—1830
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