Bring us the head of Sofia Coppola, ‘k?
Of all cinema publics, France holds the reputation for the most cinephiles, for being the home of the invention of the “auteur.” The French are the people who resist Hollywood and flock to see small, lesser-known, or offbeat filmmakers. After their obsession in the ’90s with Australo-New Zealand director Jane Campion, the French have had a little penchant for Sofia Coppola. Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation were box-office hits and are still screened in tiny art cinemas in central Paris. Thus, Coppola the younger’s latest production was much awaited at Cannes this year — in particular as it was a portrayal of the controversial, iconic historical figure Marie-Antoinette, the queen whose severed head was, along with her husband’s, the very symbol of France’s emancipation from serfdom to the first modern European republic. Like The Da Vinci Code the film was booed by an angry Cannes audience, but not for the same reasons.
Let me first stress the largesse of the French in this affair. Americans portraying French history is not the problem, as people here have a tendency to pump up their national history to the level of Universal Truth. In the case of Marie-Antoinette, the fact that U.S. cinema takes on the famous queen is not necessarily an affront. We have already heard 18th-century French personalities with American accents in Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (an essential text in the French literary canon), and the Austrians put up with Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus. So Coppola’s short-winded and relatively contemporary dialogue passes. “Is this too much?” asks Kirsten Dunst when donning a metre-high wig topped with warring galleons. That’s okay. And Marianne Faithful is so convincing as the Austrian queen I totally forgot she was a rock legend. Then there’s the music thing — we hear Bow Wow Wow and The Cure instead of Delalande or baroque harpsichord. While in France the new romantic, aristo-punk subculture never took off and there may be a fair amount of incomprehension in front of the Vivienne Westwood/McLaren aspect of the film, there is enough sensitivity and seriousness about “style” to appreciate the mix between costume drama/’80s soundtrack as décalé (offbeat) or an updating of dandyism. Hey, after all, Bow Wow Wow were riffing on French artist Manet on their 1981 album cover (who could forget Annabel Whatsername) and Manet was riffing on Giorgione, riffing on Titian and so on. Such references are de rigeur, and in this country it’s also okay to shock the bourgeois.
So if the unconventional aspects of the film did not shock the French public, why did they whistle and boo the film at its projection at Cannes? As it’s not possible to get inside the heads of these rebel festival-goers, we can only offer a few suggestions as to just what might have irritated them. Complaints that the film is too long and that while it may have good moments, it has difficult half hours, have been heard around the place, but there is a more basic problem of a perceived lack of politics. While I feel the contrast between the Queen’s frivolous and debauched spending, her pyramids of macaroons (the bill at Ladurée must be astronomical), and Imelda Marcos-size shoe collection, with the (unshown) starving population is richly suggested, many here are unable to bear the lack of clear political comment on what is at the heart of French historical identity. It’s the choice of genre that poses the problem, to paint the portrait of the Queen, to sacrifice history to her biography does not go down as well here as elsewhere. The problem is that the French spectator does not really understand which side she or he is supposed to be on. It is indeed tragic to see Marie-Antoinette bow before her angry subjects and place her head on the balcony rail as a foretaste of her guillotined fate, but the way history is taught here it is a delicate and thorny tragedy. Can we really be asked to identify with this Queen knowing that her death is accepted officially as the necessary condition of the coming into being of “the Nation”? Are we allowed to pity the golden youth of Marie-Antoinette, this poor little rich girl knowing she was not so much a rock-n-roll Queen as Coppola would have it but the original reactionnaire? Historian and cinema critic Antoine de Baecque notes the historical Marie-Antoinette was indeed as in the film, a band leader, but her entourage were not so much spoilt romantic “poseurs” as ultra-conservatives fully aware of their reactionary, political will. Was it Sofia Coppola they were booing at Cannes or once again, itching for that guillotine, Marie-Antoinette?