Unlike the well loved and generally well reviewed ‘Lost in Translation’, Sophia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ struck a mostly sour note with the critics. I take two essays, one in The New Yorker by Anthony Lane and one in the New York Review of Books by Daniel Mendelsohn to be indicative of the general position. They are both written by intelligent critics and both essays contain useful insights. Mendelsohn’s essay is more sympathetic to the movie. At least he is willing to admit that the idea of exploring the ‘inner life’ of Marie Antoinette is possible, if not explicitly interesting. Mendelsohn writes that, “there are scenes of great charm and freshness that suggest what it might have been like to be the immature and hapless object of so much imperial pomp”. Lane, by contrast, writes the following: “Coppola films Versailles with a flat acceptance, quickening at times into eager montage, and declares, in her notes on the film, that she sought to capture her heroine’s ‘inner experience’. Her what? This is like a manicurist claiming to capture the inner experience of your pinkie.”
In the final analysis, Lane and Mendelsohn both accuse Coppola of surrendering to the shallowness that she is portraying. They both seem dissatisfied by Coppola’s unwillingness to step outside of the experiences she conveys. Portraying Marie Antoinette must not be just about portraying that ‘inner life’, it must also be a critical reflection on the failure of that life, which is inextricably related to the failure of the ancien regime and the subsequent developments of the French Revolution. Coppola’s failure, then, is the failure to have said anything significant about the Revolution and its meaning. The movie, these critics seem to be saying, is utterly lacking in its own critical edge and because of that it amounts almost to an endorsement of the empty superficiality that Marie Antoinette herself embodied.
This same kind of criticism, in general, has been applied to a handful of filmmakers of recent vintage, most notably Wes Anderson. I remember a friend commenting about Anderson a few years ago that his filmmaking could be described as Mannerism. The comment stuck with me. Yet it is this same ‘Mannerism’ that rubs critics the wrong way both in Anderson’s films and in Coppola’s. So we might as well call them the New Mannerists.
Mannerism was a term first applied to painting of the late Renaissance. It got its name from the stylized, one might even say ‘affected’, way that the Mannerists painted. The Mannerists were interested in style itself. And those who criticize Mannerism tend to do so from the perspective that it is style simply for the sake of style. Thus the connection to the New Mannerists like Anderson and Coppola. In criticizing Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’, Lane and Mendelsohn were essentially asking, ‘Where’s the substance?’.
But I think Mannerism has a pretty good response to that question. There is something light, even breezy, about Mannerist painting and the way it plays with style and surface, the way it seems comfortable in the world it is portraying. Mannerists are not ‘getting to the bottom of things’ in the way that some of the powerful painters of the early Renaissance do. But that is not to say that they aren’t getting at anything at all. And this applies to the New Mannerists as well. Coppola and Anderson make films that feel nothing like the great works of, say, Antonioni or even the New Wave directors or, for that matter, the films of Francis Ford Coppola. The New Mannerists are conveying a different kind of experience. They are interested in getting a certain feel or a mood right and they value achieving that sense of mood far above accomplishments in narrative or character development.
Mannerists in general are not compelled primarily by subject matter and the films of the New Mannerists are not ‘about’ things in the way that other films are. That is one of the things I find so remarkable about Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’. There are few subjects of world history as fraught with content and meaning as the French Revolution. It’s a minefield one is expected to come to with strong positions and the goods to back them up. Coppola lets the camera drift around in scene after scene where we learn next to nothing about the events of the day. We simply see daily life as it unfolds.
Even when the Revolution itself begins to occur—a prime opportunity for drama and narrative arc—it does so in an oddly stilted way, as a kind of non sequitur. Mendelsohn criticizes the movie for precisely this reason. He writes,
“The final silent image in this movie, so filled as it is with striking and suggestive images, tells you more about Coppola, and perhaps our own historical moment, than it could possibly tell you about Marie Antoinette. It’s a mournful shot of the Queen’s state bedchamber at Versailles, ransacked by the revolutionary mob the night before the Queen and her family were forced to leave, its glittering chandeliers askew, its exquisite boiseries cracked and mangled. You’d never guess from this that men’s lives—those of the Queen’s guards—were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris. But Coppola forlornly catalogs only the ruined bric-a-brac. As with the teenaged girls for whom she has such sympathy, her worst imagination of disaster, it would seem, is a messy bedroom.”
It is as if Coppola is not up to the serious events of the adult world and thus her movie must be a mockery of those events and that world. But that is not the truth that Coppola’s movie is after. Viewed from Marie Antoinette’s perspective, from her ‘inner experience’, there was no other way for the French Revolution to come about than as a non sequitur whose immediate result is best portrayed as a messy bedroom. To me, that scene in the messy bedroom is lovely, disturbing…true.
To say that the New Mannerists are good is not to say that they are the only game in town or that goodness must now be measured with a Mannerist criterion. But when New Mannerism is good it is exceptionally so and it is producing movies that capture something important about the mood of our time. It captures a gesture, a moment, the passing of a moment that gets at something about who we are right now. It isn’t a comprehensive picture, admittedly. The films of the New Mannerists succeed often in the degree to which they give us smallness, writ large.
There is a scene in Marie Antoinette, where she is riding in a carriage toward Versailles for the first time. Bored, she breathes onto the window, which leaves a steam mark that she proceeds to draw on, doodling absently as the motors of History churn away elsewhere. It is a moment just right, small and brilliant and beautiful.