Symbols Clashing Everywhere
And even when you’re healthy
And your colour schemes delight,
Down below those dandy clothes
You’re just a shade too white.
—Adam & The Ants, “Kings of the Wild Frontier”
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) loves pink. She also loves pale blue, sugary pastries, and fluffy lapdogs. A girl made queen by the peculiar forces of 18th-century statecraft, Marie is by turns amused, alarmed, and pissed off, mercurial and imperious as only a teenager can be. Studying her more than judging her, Marie Antoinette is gloriously and sometimes disturbingly “girly.”
It opens with a portrait of the queen that is more or less familiar: she lounges on an ornate divan, her foot massaged as she appears vaguely bored, maybe pensive. “We all have good intentions,” sing Gang of Four, “But all with strings attached.” Just so, her imperial Austrian family sends the 15-year-old “Antoine,” as her mother Marie-Therese (Marianne Faithfull) calls her, to France. They mean well, that is, to cement “the friendship” between the nations, by marrying her to the 15-year-old dauphin, Louis-Auguste, soon to be Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). And yet the girl, born to such lavish wealth, can’t begin to anticipate just how changed her life will be, the many strings her marriage will have attached.
The movie represents her surprise and extraordinary poise in delicate, luminous images: Marie’s days-long journey from Vienna to Versailles (in 1768) appears as a series of gently allusive, nearly wordless bits of scenes: Marie in the carriage, playing cards with her ladies in waiting, cuddling her dog, and looking wistfully out the window. At the border, she is stripped of her old identity, by way of her gown, her dog, and her name (Maria Antonia): “It’s the custom,” explains the supremely efficient Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), who oversees the transition, “that the bride retain nothing belonging to a foreign court.” And just like that, Marie’s old self is “foreign” and her future is all.
Once over the border, Marie is introduced to the painfully shy Louis-Auguste and his randy father, Louis XV (Rip Torn). The meeting is brief, awkward, the participants picking their way across a muddy field in order to bow and curtsy before entourages of witnesses. Among them are Marie’s new “aunties,” Sophie (Shirley Henderson) and Victoire (Molly Shannon), who tend to bow their heads and titter between themselves, even as they are assigned to look out for the girl, to ensure her success in the royal court.
Her arrival at the palace is marked by still more curtsies and flutterings, as well as a couple of pronouncements by various religious and secular officials, all angling to see and assess her. She eventually grows accustomed to the rituals that structure her every waking moment—literally, from her first waking moment each day, as ladies-in-waiting and other court-affiliated hangers-on vie for the chance to undress and dress her, arranging her dress and shoes and wigs, as the opportunity to do so indicates their special status for the day. “This is ridiculous,” she smiles to the Comtesse de Noailles, who responds with the sort of haughtiness that helps her maintain the illusion of sense in her world: “This, madam, is Versailles.”
It’s not long before Marie learns other aspects of life at Versailles, specifically, the extraordinary privilege afforded to people routinely costumed and powdered by others. A girl observing her elders, she soon discovers that the royals do whatever they want, as long as they perform certain public duties, such as overseeing fancy dinners and nodding at underlings when deemed appropriate. While onlookers guess whether the girl queen will succeed (she looks too naïve, but oh dear, so sweet: ““She looks like a piece of cake!”), she is herself drawn to watch the king. He is certainly the court’s most visibly self-indulgent member, keeping a voluptuous mistress, Madame Du Barry (Asia Argento), whom gossips call a “harlot.” Marie adopts her own snooty tude toward Du Barry, refusing to speak to her—according to the social rules, the courtesan cannot speak to her first, and so this leads to a series of tense glances across rooms full of people eager to see how this 18th-century Hilary and Lindsay will interact.
Even as she gets very good at all this public performing, Marie is also keenly aware that she is not yet meeting her most important obligation, to produce an heir to the throne. And while she’s willing—at 15 and 16—to take on this duty, her husband, self-conscious and introverted (his hobby is making keys) is unable to perform in the bedroom. At first, blatherskites attribute the failure to youth, but as time wears on, they begin to blame Marie, for it is her job to elicit the future king’s interest. Of this she is reminded repeatedly by snickers from her aunties, letters from her mother, and serious-sounding advice from the attentive Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan). Some two years into the marriage, the situation is dire, and her brother Joseph (Danny Huston) arrives at Versailles to “speak to” Louis in a way that apparently inspires him to get his own duty done.
Still, Marie’s appetites—produced by the culture that needs her to be spectacular, as target or model (either will do)—are increasingly large, even as they remain predictably adolescent. The film is less concerned with “history” or even plot than it is with tracing a young girl’s changing sensibility, under a particular sort of duress and expectations. Her interior state is rendered in exquisite, “girly” imagery, fine details and pop music, indicating the superficial nature of her desires, and the adulation she garners for indulging them. Lance Acord’s camera lingers over the fine surfaces of her green and golden gowns, her diamonds, her perfectly arranged wigs (with her “flamboyant” hair designer giddy over a do that stands three feet high).
Marie and ladies indulge in every creature comfort, delectable cakes and champagne, drugs and gambling, even her luscious Swedish “beau,” a young gallant named Axel von Fersen (Jamie Dornan). When someone suggests she ease up on the vices, she laughs. She can do what she wants, it’s what she’s expected to do. Timid at first, Marie gains confidence and poise, crowned queen when Louis XV dies of smallpox. She and Louis XVI pose for more rituals as he sighs, “We are too young to reign.” The changes in Marie’s immediate family are rendered in deft strokes, namely a short montage showing several Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun paintings of mother and children, subtracting an infant who dies just before her first birthday.
Alas, the holiday she calls daily life cannot last. But even as she is increasingly troubled by the unrest among her subjects and what might be termed her “bad press” (“Don’t they ever get tired of these stories?” she asks, as wearily as any teenaged celebrity frustrated by the tabloids today), this version of Marie is also resilient. She learns to support her husband despite and because of his unpopular choices, much as he supports the fledging American Revolution, not quite anticipating the revolution at home that will undo his dominion.
The film keeps its focus on the queen’s teenness, her formation as an icon and a legend, her measure as a girl. It alludes only briefly to the fall of Versailles—the royals get word the Bastille has been stormed and then face an angry throng outside the palace (waving pitchforks and torches, as if they’ve stepped out of a Frankenstein movie). Marie steps out on the balcony, where her mere appearance, with head bowed and burden apparent, is enough to stun the crowd into silence. For a minute. It’s not long before the end is obvious. Omitting both Louis’ and Marie’s beheadings (his in 1791, hers in 1793), the movie leaves her looking slightly sad, leaving the palace. She is, as ever, resigned to her role, the public face of a monarchy bound to fall to demands for republican government.