Found Footage: Sofia Coppola

marie antoinette

As I’m known among my friends as “the contrarian” or “that person who can always be counted on to dislike the things everyone else likes,” I find myself getting into recurring fights about certain movies. So many people have taken issue with my vehement dislike of Fight Club that I’ve recently vowed to give it yet another chance, only because I would like to not argue about it anymore. However, the movie I seem to get in more arguments than any other about (even more than anything from the Nolan canon) is a movie I adore, but everyone else absolutely hated: Marie Antoinette.

To this day, I have to say I’m a little bit puzzled at all the haterade that’s been poured on Marie Antoinette over the years, big gulps of scorn that continue to spill today. When it was booed at Cannes, I found the virulently negative reaction to the film inevitable—because it was playing in France. As a friend who lived in Paris at the time explained, “The French even boo things that they like.” Sofia Coppola was making a film starring a predominantly American cast with wildly anachronistic touches (Converse! Siouxsie and the Banshees!) about a time in French history many don’t like to remember, because beheadings and stuff.

However, getting booed at Cannes isn’t such a bad thing, and in the case of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, the wildly divisive reactions to the film (which received both boos and applause) only helped. It went on to win the Palme d’Or and become one of the most talked about films of last year, both positively and negatively. Roger Ebert even put it on his shortlist of the best films of all time. Clearly a little Cannes infamy can help boost the profile of your film, and even if it doesn’t grant it masterpiece status, it can make it a film the public knows it needs to see.

In the case of Marie Antoinette, that bad reputation stuck with the film and largely colored its public perception. The film ended up grossing less than a quarter of what Lost in Translation did, and although the film had it’s defenders (Ebert among them), the critics won out, so much so that Coppola’s next film, Somewhere, received a very similar dismissal by the critical establishment. This was despite the fact that, like its predecessor, Somewhere received much better reviews than you might have heard. Somewhere and Marie Antoinette nabbed almost the exact same Metacritic scores (67 and 65, respectively), which is fitting considering that her films seem to get the same champions and detractors. In addition to Ebert’s four-star reviews of each, Salon, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times heralded both films as very good or great, comparing her work to that of Antonioni and the Italian Avant Garde. However, the backlash (led by the New York Post, New Yorker, Time, Slate and New York Observer) won the day again. Somewhere grossed less than a million dollars in theatres, a fifth of what Marie Antoinette made, and Coppola’s name quickly became a 30 Rock punchline.

But critics of Coppola—who find her work dull, self-indulgent or both—miss out on what makes her one of the best filmmakers of her generation.  As many have pointed out, Coppola can really only make movies about herself, and each of her last three features (LIT, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere) have focused on the quiet sadness of celebrity and the ways in which hyperreality distances you from reality. In Lost in Translation, the hypercapitalism and “foreign” location symbolize the trappings of our modern era, to be always surrounded by technology and industry while constantly feeling like you are nowhere. For the character of Johnny in Somewhere, this backdrop is stripped away, and we can see what the Bright Young Things of Hollywood are like when not surrounded by cameras. They lead dull, uninteresting lives, much like many people, except that Johnny deals with the expectations of excess and glamour, a life he only halfheartedly partakes in.

Because of Coppola’s interest in people who don’t always do very much, critics of her work constantly say that nothing happens in them.  Although that’s purposefully true of Somewhere (which more than holds your interest due to great work from Elle Fanning and Stephen Dorff), the opposite is the case with Marie Antoinette—which, if anything, is more garish and overstuffed than the Queen of Versailles’ pink wigs. The film swirls with modern pop music (The Strokes! New Order!), celebrity cameos (Rip Torn! Asia Argento!), frothy montages (champagne! cake!), so much so that stretches of it feel more like a music video than a film.

Many critics of the film have stopped here, at criticizing Coppola’s foregrounding of style over substance, but to do so is to miss the point. What she means to do is draw a parallel between the spoiled excesses of the past with our modern era—of two societies whose empires were on the verge of collapse. Made in 2006, two years before the housing crash when we were still partying it up with Paris Hilton, can Coppola’s connection between America and Versailles be seen as anything but extremely prophetic? By casting Kirsten Dunst in the title role (a gifted actress nonetheless a contemporary of Paris Hilton), Coppola may have been calling out our modern youth culture directly. Had we learned nothing from Versailles?  Hadn’t we learned that youth doesn’t last forever? Don’t we know that, in the end, no one got to eat cake?

However, Coppola isn’t out to be a polemicist, and her tone is far gentler and more empathetic than it might have been in the hands of another director. Rather than launching a scathing, self-righteous critique, we can see what a personal film this was for the director. As the daughter of one of the most famous directors in the world, Coppola understood what it was like to be in a position of wealth and privilege at such a young age, to have the world know your name for reasons that don’t have much to do with you. Coppola grew up in this world and its modern equivalents in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and she brings a lived-in perspective to the narrative that’s often haunting, particularly in the scene where Marie’s servants spend a comical amount of time dressing her and tying together her corsets. Although we may find it amusing, it’s anything but for those who have to live in a system where they are so bound.

As the film, like the previous Lost in Translation, was partially about herself, Coppola got the reputation of being a dramatic whiner and “always doing the same thing,” even if directors like P.T. Anderson and Scorsese are allowed to tackle similar themes, genres and conventions in multiple films. (Look at the Best Picture-winning The Departed and tell me Scorsese hasn’t made that movie 20 times.) I find that somewhat hypocritical, because the first rule of writing is always to write what you know, and you are what you know, but I suppose that the criticism is to be expected with Coppola’s now constant backlash.  As a fan, I would personally like to see Coppola expand her range and push herself to explore new territories and subjects outside of her comfort zone.

However, Coppola not doing the movies you would like her to make shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the films she’s made,  or trying to understand why she chose to make them.  Her next film, The Bling Ring, stars Emma Watson and Leslie Mann, with a small supporting turn from Kirsten Dunst, herself attempting a career comeback.  By tackling a real-life case of theft and fame-obsession, Coppola seems to be bringing her aesthetic to the Gossip Girl reality that young women today live in, and I welcome her pushing herself to do something slightly more mainstream, with less shots of fields and trees.  I’m sure she’ll be lambasted for some reason, but next time, make up your own mind about it.  Don’t believe the hype, or lack thereof.

  • Fernando

    This is a real good piece of film writing and I’m sure glad someone wrote it. I’ve often felt people view me as being semi-ironic when I whole-heartedly recommend Marie Antoinette, one of my absolute favorites of the 2000s. Your pinpointing of Sofia’s “gentle” and “empathetic” directorial tone I think is spot-on and a real key to what makes her movies work.

    My comments would maybe come closer to coherence if it weren’t 7am right now, but in any case, good work.

    • Richard Crawford

      Sofia Coppola is the most interesting and I think the BEST director of my lifetime. I am 74. I have seen MA probably over 175 times. I have loved ALL her movies TMD….truly, madly, deeply. There has never been a movie sensibility quite like her. Sofia shares LIGHT…she intuitively knows what LUX is both in her movie life and personal life. AND SHE SHARES IT…SOFIA SHARES LIGHT. I met Pauline Kael, the critic in 1962. I only wish Pauline would have lived to SEE SC’s films. I KNOW she would have loved SC’s movies.