Decadence as Distance
by Sofia Soto Sugar
Sofia Coppola’s 2016 production has given Marie Antoinette, an infamous historical figure, a modern, rocker-chic twist while still exposing her emotional and societal insecurities. Coppola, with the help of the talented actors like Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette) and Jason Schwartzman (King Louis Auguste), is able to portray the isolation and distance, as well as the adaptation that Marie Antoinette experiences. This evolution of her character is only made possible by the incredibly ornate set and vast amounts of food which lend themselves to a mise-en-scène that is truly a feast for the eyes.
Marie Antoinette, the daughter of Austria’s Empress Maria Theresa, was arranged to marry Louis Auguste, Dauphin (prince) of France and grandson of the King. During this transition, Marie Antoinette was instructed to leave everything behind and begin a completely new life as a wife, and Dauphine (princess), at the fragile age of 16. Her relationship with her husband, the royal court, and her role as Queen is paralleled almost entirely by the food portrayed, almost literally, surrounding her.
When she first arrives, she is detached and uneasy and the camera follows her shaky and handheld as she is introduced to her new home, often panning around the room to show how vast the room is and how small she feels. Despite an abundance of food and people serving it, her mannerisms are stiff and her plate goes nearly untouched while Louis, cold and awkward, continues to eat as if nothing had changed. As shown in Figure 2, the environment of excess and wealth surrounding her, depicted by the mise-en-scène, does not ease, nor reflect, her feeling of isolation.
While the Dauphin, in all his awkwardness, continues to avoid her, Marie Antoinette gets used to the royal court, establishes who her friends are, and woos the French people, but she still not satisfied with herself and her marriage. During this time, she develops an extravagant relationship with food in order to compensate surrounding herself with excessive decadent treats, especially in the iconic “I Want Candy” scene (hyperlink). Here, the camera alternates cutting and tilting, showing close-ups of drinks being poured, bets being placed, “candy” served as cakes, and jewelry and shoes being brought out like a next course. Stylistically, the mise-en-scène shows the shoes and cakes in the same colors, served in the same way, equating how truly lavish and abundant these luxury items are. The hidden appearance of a pair of Converse sneakers (at 0:10 in the clip), while a funny surprise, works with Coppola’s modern pop music choice to show Marie Antoinette as a typical teenage girl despite the royal title.
Despite her mother’s death, Marie Antoinette’s character seems herself and at ease after the birth of her daughter, Marie Thérèse. The film switches from fast-paced scenes and music to focus on her time at Petit Trianon (her private residence), painting it as a calm, idyllic environment of nature and art. It is there, where Marie Antoinette appears most natural, and she no longer hides behind elaborate plates and eats simple, natural foods. In Figure 3, we can see her hosting her friends in a garden, as they exchange dialogue about the freshness of the cheese and milk. The sound, matching the slower pace, is composed of peaceful diegetic sounds from nature (birds chirping, breeze, etc.), and a calming non-diegetic score or classical music.
Sofia Coppola’s directional choices for the characters, camera movements, and mise-en-scène, among other aspects, make Marie Antoinette into a culturally relevant and historically telling piece. The food in the film, everything from its décor, to the amount provided, to Marie Antoinette’s interactions with it, work to show her relationship with herself and the people of France, including her husband. At her most isolated and distant, she seems to surround herself with overwhelming amounts of food and desserts to overcompensate for her loneliness. It is only when she comfortably grows into herself that she accepts a simpler palate.