“Marie Antoinette” is Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece. “Virgin Suicides” is the cult classic of the “Donnie Darko” crowd, “Lost in Translation” gets all the critical attention, but it’s “Marie Antoinette” that best showcases the ineffability of her visual wit. It’s a lush, pastel coming-of-age story that sees one of the most infamous figures in Western history as a person — not wholly good or bad, but young and unprepared. It’s about glut and greed, but it’s also about the loneliness of teenage years. All that and the soundtrack slaps.
Coppola crafts — by pairing the dying days of the French monarchy with the restless sounds of post-punk and new wave — a tension between sound and image that perfectly mirrors the inner turmoil of adolescence. Marie Antoinette the person stands in the face of everything these music movements are. “Marie Antoinette” the movie puts them in tandem, pairing the material excess of Versailles with the sonic exactitude of The Strokes and New Order.
We can draw a distinction between the character and her historical counterpart because Coppola isn’t making a factual biopic, she’s making an emotional one. In “Marie Antoinette,” she builds a Versailles that is at once suffocatingly full and excruciatingly lonely, and then sits in it. For two hours, she tracks her protagonist (a tour de force performance from Kirsten Dunst) as she roams the grounds, pushing the boundaries of what the Queen of France can do and be.
This unlikely union is most in sync at the heart of the film in which Marie suggests she and her entourage sneak away from Versailles to attend a masked ball in Paris. As she enters the ball — looking decadently goth in an all-black ensemble — strings pluck softly. You think, “Wait I know this … is this …?” And it is. A string intro to “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees that explodes into its original form as Marie enters the swirling mass of dancers. For a second, as bodies whirl around each other, it looks like a pit.
The restless joy of the night mirrors the song Coppola chooses to score it. “Hong Kong Garden” has been called the most important early post-punk hit. The song was born out Siouxsie Sioux and John McKay’s love of a restaurant — the Hong Kong Garden — and hatred for the “skinheads” who populated it. Marie finds herself at the crossroads of the same emotional extremes in this scene. She loves being at the ball, but hates being there with her husband and the boring company he keeps.
This is, perhaps, why Marie emerges as sympathetic despite her wasteful and careless lifestyle. She is lonely and her yearning is palpable. She wants what everyone wants: to understand and be understood. Late in the film, she drifts through a quiet boring party. Tired of feigning interest, she excuses herself and bursts into the cold, endless halls of Versailles. The opening chords of “What Ever Happened?” burst with her.
The opening track on The Strokes’s sophomore (and best) album Room on Fire, the song begins with the declaration: “I want to be forgotten.” Which she does, at this moment. Marie longs — like all good teens — to be outside her life. For the Queen of France, that means to disappear from the public consciousness, to be freed by anonymity. The tension between wanting to be forgotten and admired, to be free but also seen are exemplified by the song.
This party is presented in contrast to Marie’s birthday, a few scenes earlier. This party—scored by New Order’s “Ceremony” — is characteristically youthful and bursting at the seams with energy and joy.
The soundtrack is the perfect representation of Marie’s subjectivity. Her emotional core is made manifest in the music Coppola uses to score her. To pick songs that can be loosely tied by this nondescript label of post-punk is genius. Part of what made this thing I’m calling post-punk different from the punk that preceded it is a self-aware recognition of the joy that can come out of anger. It’s the thrill of being young and mad and confused. The frustration of pushing against the boundaries of a world that can feel terribly small, and the rush of excitement that comes from pushing.
“Marie Antoinette” is Coppola’s masterpiece because she manages to operate in two eras at once, a feat that is more complex than pairing incongruent music and images. Coppola imagines Marie as a teenage girl in 2006 with an early generation iPod. She feels trapped by the suburban life her parents chose for her. She hates them, but she gravitates towards the music they grew up on (New Order, The Cure) and artists who take after them (The Strokes). She’s a roiling, volatile, confused teenage girl who can’t understand why she was born into the body she’s in. Teenage emotions, Coppola discovers, exist even within the hedge mazes and Baroque ballrooms of Versailles.