Article by: Abigail Marshall
Everyone’s heard the line before: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. “Something Nice to Say” is a column that takes another look at “certified rotten” movies and finds a redeeming quality in each one.
What is it that draws us to watch a movie when we already know how it ends? There’s no element of surprise, no Sixth Sense twist in store. In many cases, these films are often true stories riddled with the brand of tragedy only found in real life (Titanic, anyone?). Just as we knew the boat would sink, we know Marie Antoinette was beheaded during the French Revolution—as long as we paid attention in high school history classes, that is. Marie Antoinette was not a particularly well-liked figurehead of French royalty, and her gruesome demise casts a shadow over the excessive decadence of her life. So what’s to like in a movie that bears her name?
Though the film remains Sofia Coppola’s most poorly reviewed (55% on Rotten Tomatoes), the critics couldn’t deny that Marie Antoinette had style. “Like eating dessert first and never getting around to the main course,” one quipped. The general consensus among detractors seemed to be that Marie Antoinette was a sugary surplus of beauty offered up at the expense of substance.
On the other hand, maybe we need all that beauty to offset the misfortune we know is inevitable. This would seem to be Coppola’s well-established method of handling tragedy, if The Virgin Suicides tells us anything. Marie Antoinette is admittedly not a dialogue-heavy film, so the focus automatically falls to its visual elements—which are breathtaking at that. Despite mixed reactions to the film itself, costume designer Milena Canonero walked away from the 2007 Academy Awards with a well-deserved Oscar.
On a related note, beauty seems an odd focus for criticism. Should the film have been “less pretty”? Wouldn’t drab colors and lackluster outfits poorly represent the time period and ultimately make for a depressingly morose viewing? In any case, the film is not just endlessly, vapidly gorgeous without any significance or substance. We don’t just see the beauty—we see a young Austrian girl’s reaction to it. We don’t just see the beauty—we see how it leads to the empire’s downfall. In simple terms, Marie Antoinette is a depiction of gratuitous excess. But if this excess is founded in historical truth, isn’t displaying that beauty in overabundance simply staying true to form and story?
Interestingly, Marie Antoinette was criticized for playing fast and loose with other aspects of historical accuracy, perhaps portraying the French regime in too sympathetic a light. However, Coppola herself has asserted that the film was not “a lesson of history,” but rather an interpretation “carried by [her] desire for covering the subject differently.” The film sets out to depict its subject and her relationships, succeeding on both counts—especially when portraying the gossipy intricacies of an 18th-century French court. The naysayers would have done well to remember that a film centered on a girl who unexpectedly became queen at 19 is unlikely to be a House of Cards-esque political thriller by any stretch.
In any case, the foreboding nature of the film’s end leaves us with questions about why we watched Marie Antoinette in the first place. Is it the futile wish for an alternative conclusion—a rewrite of history? Or perhaps we seek some semblance of greater meaning in this and other doomed biopics, in hopes that the subjects’ deaths will shape their lives into something worthwhile and meaningful. After all, in most fictional movies, everything happens for a reason. Perhaps we are compelled to watch these ill-fated true stories play out on the silver screen because we wish real life could be the same.