The shopping scene in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is sweet enough to give you a cavity. It is ironic that the film was criticized for the very same qualities that Antoinette was, as it’s as beautiful and excessive as its subject. Many reviewers focus on the film’s excessive nature without discussing why this excess is important. The film examines objects, and the way people are treated as objects by emphasizing artificiality. To critique the film for being too vain and superficial only proves this point.
There is a pair of converse sneakers in the background of the “I Want Candy” sequence. It’s very quick, I didn’t even notice it until my third watch. This modern object blends with Antoinette’s world while still symbolizing our contemporary one. In this moment, the film is aware of itself and how it interacts with the history genre. By overlapping past with present, the film argues that it is impossible to divide modernity from history, and that it is far more useful and interesting to combine these perspectives. This means that Coppola’s film uses objects and excess to play with our expectations of history but also to redefine this film genre. So, while Antoinette poses the question “It’s not too much is it” in this sequence, it is too much, and that is exactly the point.
One reason the film remains divisive is because of its modern soundtrack. The history/drama genre traditionally tries to be as ‘authentic’ as possible. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which was shot entirely by candle and relied on period accurate costumes and music. Films like this are generally praised for ‘capturing’ the past, almost like a rare bird, but I would argue that wording is inherently problematic. There is no way to perfectly render the past, as it is, by definition already, gone.
Likewise, trying to recreate history is problematic when we consider that much of history was written years later, by old white men, who had pre-existing biases and intentions, and who never met the people they were discussing. History was written to serve a specific narrative, often one which tries to suppress, disprove, reframe, or amalgamate other accounts. It is important to highlight this when discussing someone as famous as Antoinette.
So why does it matter if a film is period accurate? Why do we need to ‘capture’ history rather than observe and comment on it? I think Coppola’s film is a commentary on history and the way it frames or ‘captures’ women, but also on the way women are treated in historic drama pieces. It mixes modernity with period accuracy to bring history closer to us. It tries to show us that these monumental historic figures are not so removed from our world or our ways of life. Although Marie Antoinette fixates on extreme wealth and privilege, it also implies that this world mirrors our capitalist culture. This makes Antoinette’s life a contemporary tragedy which reflects our current political and economic world.
The film tries to familiarize Antoinette by reminding us of how young she was. Antoinette was 14 when she married Louis XVI, and 19 when she became Queen of France. Coppola’s focus on this age demonstrates how imperative it is to read Antoinette in the context of teenage/young adulthood. She was a teenager put in charge of a nation, and that is something which history books tend to overlook. Coppola’s film emphasizes this using music, as it features nostalgic 80’s songs. This slightly modern soundtrack is meant to resonate with the film’s target audience, those who were teenagers in the 80’s. In doing so, the film tries to connect the audience’s experiences to those of its subject. So, although none of us have lived like Antoinette, her lifestyle is still familiar to us.
The shopping scene is probably my favourite in the film because it transitions from such a dark moment. It comes right after Antoinette receives a letter from her mother, where she critiques Antoinette for her infertility and failed marriage. We see Antoinette sob and slide to the ground. She is alone and everything is quiet. The film moves from a close-up of Antoinette’s face and then to a long shot where she is almost overwhelmed by the patterns and excess in the room. She is just a tiny figure, another object or decoration in Versailles.
Suddenly, the music starts, and we move to a close-up tracking shot of shoes. The following sequence focuses on objects and how they define the body. For example, we see shoes and a foot, but not the entire body. We see food and a mouth, but not the entire face. The only parts we see are those which interact with an object. This is how the film discusses status and class, as ultimately each courtier is defined by their proximity to an object.
The shots in this scene are as quick and distracting as the very objects they include. We move from one beautiful shot to the next, without having the time to really unpack or enjoy what they contain. Keep in mind, this sequence comes right after Antoinette collapses. These moments are connected to one another, as Antoinette is trying to distract herself from the despair in the last scene, and the film is trying to recreate that distracted sensation. Seeing these beautiful things is addictive, but after a time, they begin to lose definition. Rather than focusing on one gorgeous item, or even one historically ‘accurate’ garment or detail, the film parades through them, and in doing so, removes their value. We become oversaturated to the film’s pallet, as do its characters. Champagne and food are spilt and left for the dogs. We see poker chips that look just like food, illustrating that these objects have lost all meaning and value.
The scene is particularly memorable because it uses the song “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. There is something sinister about the repetition in the song, like the repetition in the scene. It keeps repeating the same lyric over and over, “I want candy”, until it too looses its meaning. The song matches the scene because both it and Antoinette are fixated on the joy which sweet objects bring, perhaps to replace those missing in life. The song is thus a way to close read Antoinette and her situation as it introduces a new way to consider history as a familiar continuation.