Marie Antoinette, a French-American-Japanese production directed by Sofia Coppola, was released in 2006 to mixed reactions, due to its anachronistic approach to the telling of the historical figure of Marie Antoinette. In the sequence between 51:10-55:30, there is a marked turning point in the narrative, where Marie Antoinette begins to understand her inability to fulfil her patriarchal role in aristocratic society, most importantly, her failure to produce a male heir. During the sequence, Coppola through costume and camerawork, elaborates on Coppola’s position as a political pawn, whose place in aristocratic society is determined by her ability to fulfil patriarchal expectations. However, it becomes clear that Marie is unable to live both outside and inside of aristocratic society, thus caught permanently in a state of limbo. In spite of her attempts to break from the absurd rituals and practices that hold up bourgeois society by sexualising the ritual of eating in the dining room scene, she is unable to negotiate her position in aristocratic society, which Coppola emphasises by careful of shifts in focus and camera angles. The sequence is characteristic of the film as it makes the viewer understand Marie’s plight by forcing the viewer to simultaneously experience her sense of extreme alienation, primarily through the use of re-framing and the marked absence of point of view shots. By the end of the sequence, her fate is sealed; her aspiration toward selfhood is futile in face of the patriarchy.
The beginning of the sequence marks a crucial turning point in the narrative, where Marie Antoinette’s inability to produce a child and fulfil her duties begin to take a toll on her emotionally, and is reflective of the “pathologization of female sexuality outside of the parameters of reproduction and the treatment of maternal behavior as a public rather than private matter” (Kuperman, 2015). In the beginning of the sequence, we see Marie reading a letter from her mother detailing the successes of her fellow siblings in their marriages. The content of the letter is revealed through a voice of her mother, but the sound is edited so that her voices carries over into the frame of Marie Antoinette reading the letter, without cutting away to the mom, leaving the attention solely on Marie. The viewer is thus immediately immediately pointed to the fact that Marie is in “disparate spaces”(Rogers, 2006) but is “caught once again between Austria and France” (Rogers, 2006). The idea of being caught between two political forces reveals her position as a political pawn, whose position and status is determined by her sex and her ability reproduce— thus, “her body will no longer be her own” (Rogers, 2006). The soft piano piece that is layered against the voice over narration adds a further layer of complexity to her vulnerability— its melancholy and ponderous tone speaks for Marie in the place of words.
In addition, we see Marie Antoinette placed almost symmetrically in the middle of the frame; her confinement to the space mimics her sense of feeling trapped . The “symmetry and regulated shape indicate her new role” (Andersson, 2011). This symmetry and sense on confinement also is manifested through her costume— she is wearing a floral bodice, brocade skirt and dense petticoats. Her apparent unease and suffocation in the costume can be seen to reflect her precarious mental state, the bow tied around her neck further adding to this sentiment by being a “metaphorical noose” that demonstrates her “impossible situation” (Zender, 2011). After framing her in this confined environment, the camera begins to zoom in on Marie and pans downwards as she falls to the ground— the
pattern on her dress and the wallpaper seem to almost blend to one, as if she has “dissolved into her environment here; as she disappears into the very structure of the institution whose norms and codes govern her life” (Rogers, 2006). The camera then stops as she sits on the ground and begins to zoom in to a static close up of Marie’s face. She is looking off the frame and into the nothingess: she is trapped in a ” beautiful and gilded cage that crushes any specificity or individuality” (Rogers, 2006).
She thens turns her head to face the camera, but her gaze remains not fully directed into the camera. The fact that her gaze is slightly turned away from the camera is significant— in other parts of the film, she provocatively directly stares into the camera in moments of decadence and sexuality, explicitly acknowledging the male gaze and refusing to apologise for her decadence (Wilson, 2015). However, in this moment of self-reflection, she is unable to confront the gaze fully, instead momentarily resigning to her lack of agency. The moment reflects the complex dynamics of female agency in the movie, that despite her attempts to celebrate and empower her femininity, she is ultimately governed by patriarchy. In other words, there is a “mismatch between her subjective aspiration towards selfhood and the social imprisonment which seems to make that selfhood impossible.” (Rushton, 2014).
The camera than cuts to the Marie and her husband in bed at night time, a recurring image in the film. The whiteness of her undergarments, coupled with the soft natural lighting that highlights her youthful features, underscore her “youthfulness and childlike inexperience”, one that is sharply contrasted with the fact that “she is thrust into an international limelight filled with intense political pressures” (Zender, 2011). The king then begins to caress her face, presumably initiating sex with her. When he leans over, the camera quickly cuts to a close up, obscuring his face entirely, the low-key lighting instead shifting the focus to Marie’s face. Despite it being obscured, Marie’s facial expression is very noticeable: a mix of trepidation which then turns into anticipation as she smiles; Copolla is focusing on her “extreme isolation and alienation by immersing viewers in the subjectivity of the main character” (Rogers, 2006).
However, the camera cuts back into the previous shot as Louis XVI moves off of her, and he apologises repeatedly. Marie had answered to the call of her “virgin reproductive organs” in order to serve the “political machine of two ancien-régime superpowers”, but despite her “valiant efforts to cajole the reluctant king into deflower her” she has “nonetheless failed ” (Zender, 2011). She falls back into the bed, looking up into the ceiling, once again emphasising her sense of entrapment. Crucially, the floral motif of the wallpaper in the previous scene is also brought sharply back to focus in the frame. The floral motif here functions as an “ironic symbol of fecundity unrealized” (Zender 2011), one that is sharply juxtaposed with Marie’s inability to produce an offspring. The shot lasts for a few seconds, and that stillness allows the viewer to contemplate the fundamental contradiction of Marie’s character, where she permanently caught in a state of limbo: Her desire for selfhood is crushed by societal pressure, but even when she attempts to abide by what she is told to do by society (in this scene, producing the all-important mail heir), she fails. As Rushton notes: ” Whenever she tries to do something that is motivated by herself, she is told not to do it; and here, from everywhere, even from her mother, she is told all of things she must do and which she has no choice but to do.” (Rushton, 2014). Once again the viewer is alerted to the “impossible situation” (Zender, 2011) that Marie finds herself in, paradoxically unable to live inside and outside of aristocratic society.
Antoinette’s growing sexual frustration and sense of alienation in aristocratic society is intensified in the next scene. The use of the long shot here, and the symmetrical framing allows the viewer to fully consider the elaborate mise en scene which Coppola has constructed. In the foreground, we immediately see imagery of bountifulness and colour, one that sharply contrasts with Marie’s inability to produce an offspring. The rigidness of the framing, in which the centrepiece of the banquet is placed directly in the middle of shot, is one that mirrors the strict rules of bourgeois norms and rituals. The series of events that make up
the beginning of the scene are presented in an almost mechanistic order: a gun shot announces the beginning of the banquet, the two servers bow simultaneously, and Marie and her husband begin eating. The precision of this series of events that make up the ritual of eating bear no obvious meaning, but the very fact that it seems “mechanistic and enacted as a pure means to an end reflects the archaic and crumbling world which they support” (rogers, 2006). Despite the obvious absurdity of these constantly repeated rituals (Marie herself notes the ridiculous nature of them earlier in the film), it is a primary means in which the “increasingly obsolete world of Versailles is maintained and perpetuated” (Rogers, 2006).
However, through subtle use of focus and camera angles, Coppola shows Marie attempt to break from this “self-perpetuating machine running on empty” (rogers, 2006). The scene than cuts to a close up of Marie and Antoinette eating.
The camera has a slightly sharper focus to begin with on Louis, who is eating copious amount of food in a childish manner, one that contrasts with Marie’s seductive bite into the pastry. Her act of watching, and the fact that she is in slightly blurred focus, means that despite her subtle transgression of bourgeois norms by sexualising the ritual of eating, her attempt to break free from the constraints of society are futile because she is nonetheless an outsider— her act of sexual transgression is neither seen nor heard. The camera then sharps its focus on Marie’s face, now Louis’ face is slightly blurred. This slight change in focus is characteristic of the film’s camerawork, which is often searching and seen through a variety of viewpoints. Instead of the popular use of point of view shots or revealing her inner thoughts in order to convey the loneliness of a character (Rogers, 2006), Coppola uses here subtle changes in focus to highlight Marie’s attempt to negotiate her position within bourgeois society. The use of the side angle here is also significant: we are looking at Marie look at Louis, preventing us from being fully immersed in Marie’s perspective. This points to Roger’s observation that “we understand Marie Antoinette’s plight because we experience it for ourselves” (Rogers, 2006). Although we bear witness to Marie’s alienation in bourgeois society, we do not sense that alienation directly through Marie’s viewpoint, instead, her “state of loneliness does not simply belong to the protagonist, as it is intrinsic to our experience for the duration of the film: we are outsiders in this world as well.” (Rogers, 2006)
The shot lasts only a few seconds before cutting back into static, symmetrical framing which opened the scene. The fleetingness of the moment points to Marie’s situation: she is only momentarily able to challenge the boundaries set by bourgeois society. The scene ends on a comic note: the Comtesse de Noailles running into the room to announce the arrival of the Comtesse de Provence’s baby. The camerawork takes a noticeable shift in these moments from the static framing which made up most of the scene: Coppola applies a tracking shot as the Comtesse de Noailles runs into the room, and then the camera pans up and down as the Comtesse bows. This injection of humour, amplified by the Comtesse’s exaggeratedly stilted delivery, serves no specific narrative purpose other than to point the comic nature of the rituality at the centre of bourgeois society, which is “mechanistic and routine, if not otiose” (Rogers, 2006).
As if her alienation is not bad enough, the arrival of the Comtesse’s pushes her to her emotional and mental limit: she has failed to abide by the standards of womanhood set by others. After going to greet the Comtesse after the arrival of her baby, the camera abruptly cuts to Marie walking through the hallways. Here, Coppola employs a tracking shot as Marie moves toward the camera. She is moving quickly people who whisper behind her back, but as she approaches the camera she begins to become more and more compressed in the framing of the shot, manifesting her sense of increasingly being squeezed and suffocated by society. Here, Coppola contrasts the fast movement of the camera with compressed framing; despite trying to run way as quickly as possible from the society that oppresses her, she becomes more and more sucked into its hermetic world the faster she tries to escape. Once again, Coppola is caught in an impossible situation, whereby the more she attempts to escape society, the further she becomes entangled in its web. The subtle change in lighting exacerbates this: the “natural” lighting that pours in through the arches becomes gradually darker as she approaches the camera: despite her attempt to move away, her situation is progressively more and more desperate.
The use of sound is also particularly predominant in this scene. As the joyous bells ring prominently in the background, Marie Antoinette is surrounded by vicious chatter and gossip about her inability to produce an heir. First, one lady in the left hand side of the frame whisper to the lady next to her: “What do you expect, she’s barren”. Although they were presumably speaking quietly, her comment is clearly heard by the viewer, given high presence in the sound mix of the diegetic sounds. This play with sound serves to foreground the relentless nature of gossip which surrounds her at all times, and further cements her as an outsider— as anthropologist Max Gluckman notes, “there is no easier way of putting a stranger in his place than by beginning to gossip” (Gluckman, 1963). She is then met by another piercing barb, louder then the one before it: “give us an heir!”. Two more ladies walk past her, whispering indecipherably. Here, Marie is caught in a cacophony of sounds coming from all sides, which vary in degrees of loudness, but serve to emphasise the fact “there is here no sense of Marie “speaking together. It is instead a manner of being spoken to or spoken of” (Rushton, 2014). She is unable to speak back, rendered silent and “confined or concentrated to a state of isolation so extreme as to portray and partake of madness, a state of utter incommunicability, as if before the possession of speech” (Cavell, 1994).
She then runs into a room and begins crying, realising the full weight of her failure to fulfil
her duty in patriarchal society. Here, Coppola presents a defined series of alternating camera angles in order to re-frame Marie in the space and her succumbing to the governing codes of aristocratic society . She begins with a close up of Marie Antoinette, the camera tracking her anxious and aimless movements. As she falls to the ground, the camera employs a medium shot, revealing her encroaching body language, heightened by the confinement of the two gold lines of the wall which she is placed against us. Finally, the camera then cuts to a long shot, with Marie placed on the corner of the room, a diminutive figure against the grandeur and high ceilings of the room. This series of re-framings serves to de-center the viewer’s gaze: as Pascal Bonitzer notes, “The eye accustomed (educated) to center right away, to go to the center, finds nothing and flows back to the periphery” (Beugnet, 2004). By “throwing the viewer’s gaze into crisis” , we visually are not only pointed to the “the main character’s vulnerability within an implicitly patriarchal structure” but it “”also engenders feelings of displacement and anxiety within the film viewer as well” (Rogers, 2006). Once again, Coppola makes the viewer understand Marie’s plight by forcing the viewer to simultaneously experience her extreme alienation. Rendered a nearly indecipherable figure in the immense diegetic space that surrounds her, it is here that the viewer comes to understand that the heroines of Coppola’s film, Marie included, “exist mostly in their inner minds, unable to connect to the world that surrounds them. Having no equals in the world with whom to share themselves, they are severed from an intellectual life that would allow them to speak themselves into existence’ (Lane and Richter, 2006).
In conclusion, the sequence between 51:10-55:30 cements Marie’s confinement to a patriarchal society, which makes her aspiration toward selfhood impossible. In the beginning of the sequence, Coppola, through the use of framing, costume, and sound-editing, Coppola introduces Marie as a political pawn, whose position in bourgeois society is determined by her ability to fulfil her patriarchal duties, the most important of them, to produce a male heir. However, as she attempts to fulfil her patriarchal duties in the attempted love-making scene in her bedroom with her husband, despite her best efforts she is unable to, calling to mind Rushton’s observation that she is an “impossible situation” (Rushton, 2014), paradoxically unable to live both inside and outside of society. In the dining room scene, there is an emphasis on the rituals and practices that maintain the crumbling aristocratic society— although Marie attempts to break free from them, through the sexualising of her eating, she is still caught in a sense of extreme alienation, which Coppola emphasises through shifts in focus and camera angles. The arrival of the Comtesse de Provence’s baby pushes her to emotional limit as she runs into an empty room. Through a series of re-framings, in which the viewer’s gaze is de-centered, Coppola, as is characteristic of the entire film, engenders the feeling of displacement within the viewer which Marie herself feels. Though later Marie is able to produce the all important male heir, it is during this sequence that we can come to understand that there is a fundamental “mismatch between her subjective aspiration towards selfhood and the social imprisonment which seems to make that selfhood impossible.” (Rushton, 2014).