This is why events unnerve me,
They find it all, a different story. – New Order, Ceremony
From the hot pink opening credits of the film to the post-punk guitar chords of Gang of Four, we are shown that this is not just an historical tale. Rather, Marie Antoinette, ostensibly a tale about the dubious political career of a teenager set in the late 1700s, uses music, montage and the colour pink to recast this story as a narrative about the 1980s. The film’s director, Sofia Coppola, herself a child of the 1980s, collapses these time periods. What I like so much about this movie is how this recasting comments both on the age of riches, aristocracy and big hair, as well as the 1700s.
This recasting occurs in a number of ways—most obvious is the use of music. Although some of the songs in the film were current to the film’s release, as well as from the literal time period of Marie Antoinette, many are from the 1980s—songs by New Order, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie & the Banshees. These fun, upbeat songs reflect the carefree (careless?) youth of Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette. Rather than concerns of state, Marie is interested in having the nicest dresses, shoes and cupcakes[i] and talking to the cutest boy. Siouxsie’ Hong Kong Garden plays during a costumed dance party. The scene makes me think that Molly Ringwald, Eric Stoltz and Judd Nelson are behind a few of those masks. Indeed, the film is concerned with the clash of careless youth culture with their established elders. Characters, such as Marie’s mother, played by Marianne Faithfull, or her attendee, played by Steve Coogan, attempt to wrangle Marie’s carefree spirit which is reviled by the French court and makes her a source of gossip and ridicule. They just don’t understand how much fun girls want to have.
Rather than see the film’s depiction of Marie’s scampering and partying as an apology for her behaviour these sequences align the film with the careless “life is a party” and “responsibility” is a four-letter word attitude common to a John Hughes film. In the film, the success of Marie is not measured in her stabilizing France or her failure to do so resulting in her death, but rather the moment of copulation between her and her husband. That is, her failure as Queen is often judged by her inability to consummate her marriage. This reminds me of the literal and figurative climax of many 1980s teen comedies where characters’ life goals are to lose the big “V.”
Saying that the time leading up to Marie’s body being removed from her head was arduous for many people understates the death and despair that occurred during Marie and her husband’s tenure. The conspicuous wealth of royalty reached new heights during the reign of Louis the 16th. Not merely content with building future tourist attraction, Versailles, the King and Queen sought refuge from the hustle and bustle of court overseeing the construction of many other residences including a farm. The coffers of France dried further with involvement in the American Revolution.
By aligning Marie’s frivolous and excessive lifestyle with 1980s films and movies we can be read Marie’s materialism as the consumption of Reagan’s 80s. Similarly, the 1980s saw the first steps in the collapse of the New Deal, Milton Friedman’s tenure on the Economic Policy Advisory Board, the virtual election of Barry Goldwater, rising unemployment, increase in American debt and an ever widening gap between poverty and privilege—all narrated by Robin Leech. Although many Americans felt the brunt of Reagan’s policies this decade is still known for its fashion and music. There is a scene in Marie Antoinette where shoes, cakes, pastries and other meticulous prepared foods are edited into a montage reminiscent of 1980s popular filmmaking. Indeed, food serves as an important trope throughout the film constantly reminding the viewer of the court’s excess. The conspicuous consumption of cuisine is paralleled with the Queen’s love of fashion. In the end, she is a consumer. Marie’s commodification and buying of everything around here may seem to provide satiation but this satiation is ultimately fleeting. She grows bored with everything; her shoes, her home and her men. Thus while the film may, at times glorify her lifestyle it also critiques her gluttony. She may consume to overcome her boredom, but her boredom is caused by her vacuous consumption. This parallels 1980s American and the moderate cultural backlash of the 1990s. As witnessed in the 1990s, the excessive spending in the 1980s gave way to a revolution, albeit a quiet one, with a desire for reform, egalitarianism and Teen Spirit.
The film’s trailer intercuts scenes from the film with intertitles, once again in hot pink, displaying the words: rumour, scandal, sex, fame and revolution. Despite the inclusion of the word “revolution” these words seem to be describing the latest gossip. Indeed, “revolution” seems almost an afterthought. In the film we never really see the revolution. All we get are shoes, parties and a really good soundtrack. Although Marie might not have said, “Let them eat cake,”[ii] we do know that Ronald Reagan said, “Let them eat ketchup.”
[i] I don’t like cupcakes—they are just cake, which I do like, but much smaller. Saying you like cupcakes is saying you expect less from life.
[ii] Given her character I think it far more likely she said “Let them eat cupcakes.”