When Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette premiered in Cannes, some of the very serious critics of the day had a major problem with it: it didn’t address the suffering of the starving peasants, instead focusing on the excessive shopping habits of a lonely teenage queen. But that was exactly Coppola’s point. Using Antonia Fraser’s 2001 book as her source, she sought to see beyond the shallow thoughtlessness we so easily attribute to this doomed queen; she knew she would find a person there, and she did. Kirsten Dunst brings that dauphine-at-14 to life in a performance as translucent, but also as surprisingly sturdy, as a porcelain teacup. As young Marie leaves her home and family in Austria, crossing into an uptight France full of rules and regulations, we see both eagerness and apprehension on her face—but it shifts to adolescent devastation when her little dog, Mops, is snatched from her arms. The brittle Comtesse who’s overseeing this transition, played by Judy Davis, informs her frostily, “You can have as many French dogs as you like.” You would cry too, if it happened to you.
It’s true that Marie Antoinette is at least partly a whirlwind ode to beauty, pleasure, and decadence, a reverie of pastel fondant colors, of silks and satins that appear to have been torn from the sky, of slippers so dainty they couldn’t handle much more beyond tapping across royal marble floors. (No wonder Coppola slips in a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of pink Chuck Taylor hightops, as if wanting to bestow upon this queen just one pair of pretty-but-practical kicks.) But much of the film’s music, drawn from the 1980s catalogs of bands like Gang of Four and New Order, strikes a bleaker note. Coppola knows she’s telling a story not just of pretty gowns and shoes, but also of encroaching unrest and painful change. Marie Antoinette takes place in the dawn preceding a very dark day, and Coppola knows it.
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