Sofia Coppola is the Veruca Salt of American filmmakers. She’s the privileged little girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory whose father, a nut tycoon, makes sure his daughter wins a golden ticket to the Willie Wonka factory by buying up countless Wonka bars, which his workers methodically unwrap till they find the prize. If Coppola’s 2004 Academy Award for best original screenplay for Lost in Translation was her golden ticket to big-budget filmmaking, Marie Antoinette is her prize, a $40 million tour through the lush and hallucinatory candy land of 18 th-century France. Of course, Roald Dahl’s insufferable Veruca Salt was eventually seized by angry squirrels and hurled down a garbage chute. Will Coppola suffer a similar fate when Marie Antoinette opens this Friday?
The film was simultaneously booed and given a standing ovation at Cannes, and reviews have been not just mixed but fiercely divided. Like licorice, Marie Antoinette is a confection you either love or hate, and both affects seem tied to your feeling about the director herself and her apparent identification with Louis XVI’s bride. For my part, I can definitely say that I love licorice and hate Marie Antoinette. But I’m still wrestling with the enigma of Sofia Coppola.
Given the film’s cavalier treatment of their country’s history, French critics, understandably, head up the haters’ brigade. Agnès Poirier, the London correspondent for Libération, scoffs, “There are two things [Coppola] likes, dresses and pudding. … Cinema is for Coppola a mirror in which she looks at herself, not a mirror she holds to the world.” But many critics on both sides of the Atlantic defend the film, in indulgent language that often seems to apply to its creator as well. To Entertainment Weekly’sLisa Schwarzbaum, Marie Antoinette is “the work of a mature filmmaker who has identified and developed a new cinematic vocabulary to describe a new breed of post-postpostfeminist woman.” (The triple negative threw me for a minute, but I think she means “not feminist.”)
To be fair, dresses and pudding are perfectly lovely things to contemplate, and Marie Antoinette makes them look exquisitely desirable. It does the same for lingerie, upholstery, wigs, babies, and sheep. What’s impossible to tell is what, if anything, this film has to say about its objects of desire, its subject herself, the waning years of the French aristocracy, or the present day. That Kirsten Dunst’s dimples are irresistible? That lavender and turquoise look good together? That it’s really fun to have unlimited amounts of cash?
There’s no question that making movies is, at least in part, always a matter of shopping. A director must select, and find a way to pay for, the right cast, the right music, the right cinematographer. And, as this recent piece in the Times travel section shows, Sofia Coppola is a peerless shopper. The movie’s signature set piece is a montage of Louis-heeled Manolo Blahnik shoes in Easter-egg colors, filmed in fetishistic close-up to the strains of Bow Wow Wow singing “I Want Candy.” It’s exhilarating in the style of a high-end television commercial or magazine fashion spread. But, by linking the excesses of the French court of the 1780s with the pop culture of the 1980s, does Coppola intend to suggest that we’re overdue for another revolution? Or just that, then as now, les filles just want to have fun?
If you follow Sofia Coppola’s press coverage for a while (a project not recommended for those with a glucose intolerance), you’ll read how Coppola manages to mystify and charm her interlocutors with trailing-off sentences and evasive mumbles. You’ll also come across frequent admonitions from critics to “just go with it.” It’s as if she’s the blushing rose of cinema, requiring protection from the harsh winds of unfavorable attention. References to her embarrassing casting as Mary Corleone in The Godfather, Part III (1990) invariably celebrate her fortitude in surviving the savagery of the film’s reviews. But the negative critical response was justified; it’s hard to think of a more amateurish performance in a major Hollywood release of the last two decades.
I’m not saying that Coppola is without talent as a director. She has a keen eye for composition, impeccable taste in music and fashion, and a nice sense of understatement. The Virgin Suicides was haunting, if slight, and Lost in Translation goes an amazingly long way on nothing but setting and mood. But it’s possible to believe both things: that Coppola is a filmmaker of promise and that her path to success has been cushioned, not only by her place in the Coppola family, but by her own savvy image-management. She cultivates the persona of a shy, melancholy, and effortlessly glamorous girl wandering through a strange new world, bemused by the accolades heaped upon her—a persona that’s replicated in the dreamy, glazed female protagonists of all three of her movies so far.
These qualities have seduced, among others, fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who named a handbag after Sofia (retail price $6,950) and made her the face for his Essence perfume. “If I were a girl,” Jacobs has said, “I’d like to be Sofia. She’s very feminine, and very quiet. I’m sure she works quite hard, but it all seems effortless.” Doesn’t it just? Sofia’s father, Francis, named one of his Napa Valley sparkling wines after her: The label describes the beverage as “revolutionary, petulant, reactionary, ebullient, fragrant, cold, cool.” At least one of those adjectives, “reactionary,” might arguably sum up Marie Antoinette as well.
In a Vanity Fair profile last month, Evgenia Peretz wrote about the director’s nontreatment of the rioting French proletariat in Marie Antoinette: “In neglecting them she has unwittingly taken a political stance.” Unwittingly? It seems disingenuous to suggest that a movie about the fall of the French monarchy could be anything but political. I don’t ask Coppola to be unsympathetic to the young queen, or even to devote any screen time to her arrest and decapitation. (The film ends abruptly as Jason Schwartzman’s King Louis XVI and his queen flee Versailles in their royal coach after the storming of the Bastille.) But just because the film’s heroine has nothing to say about politics, revolutionary or otherwise, doesn’t justify Coppola being similarly dumbstruck.
“It’s not like I’m a royalist,” Coppola protested in a recent interview, when asked about her curiously blank take on the French Revolution. I’ll take her word for it, but you’d never know it from the movie she’s made, which is at least as nostalgic about the ancien régime as Gone With the Wind is about the antebellum South. Coppola’s heroine lodges a similar protest in the film upon hearing about her alleged wish for the starving masses to nourish themselves on cake. “I would never say that!” the queen comments, shocked, to her ladies in waiting. According to the Antonia Fraser biography Marie Antoinette is based on, she never did say those actual words—but the rest of the film shows her as exactly the kind of person who would say them, so what’s the difference?
Peretz’s Vanity Fair profile begins with the kind of protective disclaimer that Sofia Coppola tends to evoke from journalists: “It might be tempting to dismiss Coppola as a ditz who has successfully parlayed her famous name, the right clothes, and the right friends into an overblown image.” As a matter of fact, it is; so much so that, like Coppola’s young queen faced with a Sèvres platter of Ladurée macaroons, I simply must give in to temptation.