Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Marie Antoinette -- materialism and values

Director: Sophia Coppola, 2006 (PG-13)

Anyone coming to Coppola’s film expecting dramatic retelling of the story of the iconic queen is in for a major disappointment. Rather, this film, based on Antonio Fraser’s book, offers an imagined glimpse into the self-contained world of its heroine. This is a world bereft of poverty and purpose. An early quote makes this clear. When Marie Antoinette says, “This is ridiculous,” the Comtesse (her female valet) replies, “This, Madame, is Versailles.” This is Coppola’s film. Ridiculous it may be, but it is pretty and painless way to enjoy two hours.

The film begins with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) in Austria, a young 14-year-old enjoying her pug and her innocence. But political relations between France and Austria need to be cemented by a marriage, and Marie Antoinette and the 16-year-old Louis (soon to be XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman) are the unfortunate twosome. Marie Antoinette is taken from Austria and psychologically and literally stripped before entering France to begin a new life in the court of Versailles as the fiancé to the next king.

Life in the court is ridiculous, ruled by conventions. For instance, she cannot dress herself but must be dressed by the most ranking lady in waiting present, which might change as new ladies enter her room. Privacy is a thing of the past. Her palace becomes her prison, with bars of gold and cells full of cake.  “Let them eat cake” seems to echo throughout the long corridors.

This is no conventional period piece. Of course it overflows with sumptuous settings, gorgeous gowns, frivolous feastings. But Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides) backs it with an anachronistic soundtrack, full of modern tunes, and allows her actors to maintain their American accents. They may look French and effete, but they sound most modern. This is Coppola’s point – to make Marie Antoinette’s position accessible and hence to offer social commentary on today’s values.

In her new world, detached from the reality, isolated from family, Marie Antoinette focuses on things she can control: clothes and shoes, fashion and food. She surrounds herself with friends to share gossip and good times. Partying and gambling become her way of life. She fights boredom with self-indulgence and materialistic indulgence.

After her marriage, her main purpose in life is to produce an heir to the throne, a son to Louis. But consummation of the marriage is a problem, as Louis refuses to do the manly deed. As a result, Marie Antoinette suffers from the pressures of the French expectations.

How are we like Marie Antoinette? What pressures do our families’ impose upon us? What does society expect of us? And how do we respond?

Today’s society, like the 18th century French court, focuses on amusement, literally non-thinking entertainment that wiles away the hours of our lives. We have become obsessed with fashions and fashionistas, slathering over the lives of celebrities rather than enjoying our own lives. Our values have devolved to consumeristic materialism. We treasure the impermanent. Fifteen minutes of fame is pursued. But the permanent is forgotten, if it was ever known.

As then, so now God is forgotten and removed. Our society has trivialized religion. We see this in the removal of Christ from Christmas, which has now become a politically correct “Holiday”. No longer we do trust in God. Instead, we trust in things. We strive after toys, as though they would fulfill. And when they fail to do so, we turn to something else. But only God can satisfy. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” King Solomon put it this way, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecc. 3:11).

Marie Antoinette paints a perfectly pretty patient portrait of her world, never getting into the politics of the period. But it ends too soon . . . or not soon enough. The last ten minutes of the almost plotless movie picks up the revolutionary mood, as the mob descends on the palace.  We know that the Queen eventually ended up being beheaded months after her husband, a victim of the French Revolution. But Coppola chooses to sidestep this ending, and leaves us with the Queen pondering her place, looking back, a woman who has matured into a caring mother even as she continues to care about her stuff. Will we end our lives like this? Or will we leave it with our eyes looking ahead to the one who cares for us and who is calling us home? How we live in this materialistic moment of history will define our place outside of history.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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