Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette exists in multiple overlapping worlds. The film introduces us to them in quick succession. Over the opening credits we see an extreme of self-indulgent depravity, surrounded by cake no less, garishly presented to a punk soundtrack. Flashing back we see a very young Marie leaving the natural beauty of her native Austria for the ultimate artifice of the Court at Versailles.
Of these conflicting existences, Marie is presented as most comfortable in nature. Coppola shows us Marie seeming to thrive for the first time in her idyllic rustic retreat with her children, finding genuine joy in a pure, simple life far removed from either the bizarre and repressive structure of Versailles, or from the desperately excessive pleasure seeking of her debauched court. At one point, we see Marie in a field, reading Rousseau aloud to friends, contemplating the proper place of humanity in the natural world. The film retains its focus on Marie’s experience, and leaves it to the viewers to remember that the future leaders of the revolution are a few miles away, also reading Rousseau, developing a philosophy that will justify a different set of excesses about to be unleashed. Ironically, it was Rousseau who coined the phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, later attributed to Marie.
In the film, we never see or hear from the forces opposing the monarchy. We hear mentions of unrest or dissatisfaction through briefings with advisors. Ultimately the wealth and power of the royal family prove to be a thin veneer. When the mob, replete with pitchforks and torches, do arrive at the palace to depose the monarchs, they seem more like a force of nature, like a storm against which even sovereigns are powerless. They have no names, no faces. Their case against the queen is not articulated. In this moment of crisis, Marie is presented sympathetically, facing her doom with unexpected grace. The film provides a thought provoking parable for the new gilded age, presenting the 0.01% as human, muddling through as best they can with the lousy hand they were dealt. As Bob Dylan once said, “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky. “