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(Credits: Far Out / Columbia Pictures / YouTube)

Film

How 'Marie Antoinette' changed the historical biopic forever

@notmyyaztattoo

Say what you want about Sofia Coppola, the acclaimed director, but if there’s one indisputable fact about the proverbial heiress to Hollywood’s directorial throne, it’s that she’s built a distinct style all of her own, and you can recognise it just about anywhere. 

Ever since her 1999 directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides, we’ve been able to count on Coppola to deliver a unique and aestheticised storytelling style that hinges on the darkness of girlhood and beauty. Only two films later, with her third directorial feature, we got the oddly controversial, yet undeniably high-quality biopic of Marie Antoinette. 

The 2006 film forewent a lot of long-held conventions of the biopic genre. It was abundantly stylised, to the point where many critics of the work toted it as a “style over substance” film. Rotten Tomatoes still has this quote plastered across the home page, “Lavish imagery and a daring soundtrack set this film apart from most period dramas; in fact, style completely takes precedence over plot and character development in Coppola’s vision of the doomed queen.” But one thing that the world has only begun to understand with time, is that with Coppola, the style is a part of the substance and vice versa. 

In addition to the elaborate costuming and the pastel set design, 2006’s Marie Antoinette also featured plenty of anachronisms, from details of the set design to the dialogue, and (perhaps most notably) in the soundtrack. Would the real Marie Antoinette have listened to New Order and The Strokes? Coppola says yes. 

Beyond the stylistic elements, Marie Antoinette essentially set out to do what all biopics must on some level: to offer insight and humanise the subject. Oddly, this in itself was a controversial choice. People Magazine ran a review saying, “The absence of political context … upset most critics of Marie Antoinette, director Sofia Coppola‘s featherweight follow-up to Lost in Translation. Her historical biopic plays like a pop video, with Kirsten Dunst as the doomed 18th century French queen acting like a teenage flibbertigibbet intent on being the leader of the cool kids’ club.”

The apparent lack of historical accuracy and political context upset plenty of armchair historians, even as a lot of the script was dedicated to myth-busting long-held rumours of the real historical figure (read: the creative shutdown of the ever-famous “let them eat cake” misquote). The historical inaccuracy that bothered most people—that had critics squirming in their chairs—was the brazen, aesthetic, intentional choice of anachronism. Really, Coppola had the guts not to hide the places where she knew history wouldn’t hold itself, pushing forward full-steam ahead.

Even though the film was shrugged off as a sugar-coated teen girl fantasy by many at its time of release, its format had a clear and quantitative impact on historical dramas and biopics that has reverberated for over a decade and a half now. We see shows like Bridgerton and The Great, which embrace anachronism in dialogue, costume, soundtrack, and set design, and are all the better for it. We saw The Great Gatsby utilise an explicitly modernised soundtrack, the way it appears the new Elvis biopic is gearing up to do the same (or so it seems, leading with a Doja Cat single).

One could also argue that this film was a part of the wave of young womens’ stories taking the spotlight in filmmaking, which is a theme across Coppola’s broader work. Although it may have been overlooked in the past, it’s clear looking back that Marie Antoinette played a major role in stylising and executing historical dramas and biopics. And it did so in a frilly pink dress, drunk on champagne giggles, skipping along to The Strokes (like I’m sure many of us always have a little urge to do).