Marie Antoinette: Sacrebleu! - a right royal rumpus

Marie Antoinette was forced into the limelight as a child and faced French wrath - much like Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst, the stars behind Hollywood's retelling of the doomed queen's reign.
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The Independent Culture

Director Sofia Coppola and actress Kirsten Dunst can empathise with Marie Antoinette, who was just 14 years old when she wed King Louis XVl, to be forevermore maligned as France's most reviled queen. "Can you imagine putting a teenage girl in a situation like that today, and not expect her to make mistakes?" asks Coppola, whose own childhood came under public scrutiny as the daughter of legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola. The former child-star Dunst, 24, who portrays the teenage queen in Coppola's costume drama, Marie Antoinette, agrees: "It's a strange situation to be so young and have everyone paying you so much attention. It creates a certain sense of isolation."

If Versailles was one of the most decadent courts in history, permeated by gossip and rivalry, then Dunst claims that Hollywood isn't so dissimilar. A veteran of some 50 television commercials before making her film debut in Woody Allen's New York Stories, aged seven, her own personal Versailles moment came shortly after her 12th birthday with her breakthrough performance in Interview with the Vampire. Here, she beat numerous actresses, including Christina Ricci and Dominique Swain, for the coveted role of Claudia - the uncannily self-possessed child-vampire - to star opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

"Obviously, I'm not comparing myself to Marie Antoinette, but I think any young person placed in that position feels that way," says the actress who was dealing with puberty at the same time she became the object of envy resultant of her vampire screen kiss with then teen idol Pitt.

"I can understand that feeling of isolation and the difficulties of trying to find your identity with all those different pressures on you," says Dunst, who began modelling aged three. "Like when you go somewhere and people know who you are immediately, so they treat you differently. That can mess with your head.

"That said, I can't imagine being put in the position Marie Antoinette was in. I agree there may be some similarities, but we're dealing with a much higher position. I'm an actress and not a queen. And it's not like I'm greeted with people in my bedroom every morning," she says, referring to scenes in the film where the young Marie Antoinette routinely awakes in the royal bed-chamber to a procession of courtiers.

While Coppola's interpretation of the life of France's legendary teenage queen has not met with the same unanimous approval as her last film, the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, the 35-year-old director is unperturbed. Hitting back at the critics who have mauled Marie Antoinette, accusing her of Americanising French history, she says: "The French people have always been supportive of my work and they were really encouraging and excited that a young woman was telling a story that hasn't been told from that point of view.

So most people - and all the people at Versailles - were very open to us being there. I definitely encountered a few people who were challenging us and saying, 'As an American, you can't come in and tell this story'. But then Marie Antoinette wasn't French either [she was Austrian] and they rejected her. It's a universal story."

Coppola claims her film wasn't, contrary to press reports, unanimously booed during a press screening earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. "It's just a much more interesting story to tell rather than the truth, which was that five people booed," she says. "Nobody talks about the hundreds of people who applauded. The reports got totally distorted.

"I guess it's still a loaded topic in France. Of course, I'm sensitive and it's always scary putting your movie out. But if you're going to do things that are unusual and not the same old thing, then part of it is having to be strong when people don't get it."

Coppola met with approval during earlier Cannes outings, where she debuted The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, so this year's lukewarm reception of Marie Antoinette was something of a wake-up call. "It's always nice to go in as an underdog, but it's harder to go in after you've had a success because I think it's human nature to want to bring you down," she says.

Granted generous access to the palace of Versailles, there is no denying that Coppola's Marie Antoinette is visually stunning, set to a largely Eighties soundtrack featuring Adam and the Ants, New Order and Bow Wow Wow. And, as often is the case with Coppola's films, it's more about what the characters don't say than what they do say.

"I've always been drawn to the theme of girls in a time of transition in their lives," she says. "To me, a lot of the story is about a girl's evolution into a woman. I think we all find ourselves put into a life or culture that we didn't choose and have to find our identity within that. I just felt that was a universal theme.

"On those kind of human basic levels, you could understand the competition between women in a family. For me, I guess there's an element of having experienced a certain alienation during my own youth. I didn't feel totally alienated but I think whenever you're in a transition or an introspective time in your life, there is some separation from the world around you.

"I've definitely been in worlds I didn't relate to [she grew up on the sets of her father's most famous films, including a two-year stint in the Philippines during Apocalypse Now], although I can't imagine what it would be like to live so publicly in Versailles, on display."

Enjoying a close father-daughter relationship, Coppola Snr has produced all three of his daughter's major films. Heedless of accusations of nepotism, he has encouraged his daughter's creativity since birth, casting her in all three of his Godfather films, making her screen debut as a baby boy in a christening scene when she was six months old. In turn, Coppola herself is unafraid of accusations of favouritism, casting her own cousin Jason Schwartzman as the impotent King Louis XVI.

Like most people, Dunst's previous knowledge of Marie Antoinette was limited to the typical depiction of a selfish, extravagant queen, shocked to discover how young she was when she arrived at Versailles for her arranged marriage. "I wanted to get that across in the film - the fact of just how young she was," she says.

"Throughout the day, I would jump around for ages to get me in the spirit of this childlike queen. I think she used her youth throughout her reign, as a form of protection from the world, until finally she was faced with reality. I think she grew up in that moment and, after that, she became more of a woman to admire in prison, and that's when she really came into her own. So our story deals with this child trying to find her identity and trying to make herself feel better by creating these other places for herself in Versailles and in those gardens.

"Within those perimeters, she has no way of breaking free. All she really wanted to do was go to Paris and visit the opera and probably be like anybody on the street - just living their lives. But every time she tried to break free, she was simply met with criticism and more gossip. She was so in her own world that I don't think she realised how critically her actions were perceived and the things that people were saying about her. She was really isolated through it all."

Dunst concludes: "But maybe that was a blessing. In my own situation, the things that I'm criticised for are just so petty and silly. Stuff about what I'm wearing or not wearing. And who really cares at the end of the day? It's sad that people have invested so much into that world. So maybe things aren't so different in Hollywood to how they were 230 years ago in Versailles."

While some critics have compared Marie Antoinette with modern-day female icons ranging from Paris Hilton to Diana, Princess of Wales, Coppola denies any connection. "I'm not even going to comment on Paris," she says. "As for Princess Diana, I wasn't really thinking of her when I was making the film but in hindsight I can see a connection between her and Marie Antoinette; this young girl put into this royal family without a lot of freedom. I can definitely see similarities in that royal life but I wasn't thinking specifically of her."

But Coppola does see her film as a metaphor for Young Hollywood and certain young women whose lives seem out of control. "I think there's a lot of excess, frivolity and superficiality," she ventures. "You certainly see that in our culture today. And when I was reading the French pamphlets of that time I thought, 'It's just like the tabloids today', so there are elements that still exist today, although I wasn't commenting on that alone."

The director based her screenplay on Antonia Fraser's book Marie Antoinette: The Journey. "Reading the book, I was struck by the human side; that Antonia really portrayed this real human girl," she says. "Everything I previously knew about Marie Antoinette made her out to be this decadent figure or a myth; not a real person but more like a cliché. So it was interesting to hear about the personal side of this person behind the myths, most of which are based on things that aren't true. And I was struck by how young she was. She was 14 coming into this situation. They were basically teenagers running France at that time.

"Up until Antonia's book, Marie Antoinette had been portrayed as such a villain, with the whole, 'Let them eat cake', thing. And she was also known as stupid, but I read her letters and she's like this sarcastic, intelligent, young girl who's sheltered and in a situation where she is just unaware. And I thought the whole story between her and Louis, and their lack of sex, was so strange. I'd never heard that before and then it started to make sense to me that she wanted to go out to parties, not to go home because of everything that was going on. And also, some aspects of her are just human qualities which are the same hundreds of years later."

Coppola grew unexpectedly close to Fraser, and received encouragement from Fraser's Nobel prize-winning husband Harold Pinter. Coppola says: "I got to know her quite well when I was working on this. Mostly I would e-mail her questions and she came and visited the set. I visited her at home in London a few times while I was working on the script. I felt really lucky that she was so open to my approach and really encouraging and helpful.

"It means a lot to me that she is enthusiastic about the movie and I got a beautiful letter from Harold Pinter saying how much he liked the movie and what he liked about it. He said he liked how you felt like you were really there with them at that time, which is what I was trying to do. Of course, I admire his work and hers, so that meant a lot to me."

Having originally approached Alain Delon to portray Louis XV, the French actor publicly rejected Coppola's offer, the result being that Marie Antoinette doesn't feature a French actor in any significant role. Indeed, the only French person of any significance in Coppola's life is musician Thomas Mars, 29. The biggest hit to date for Mars, the lead singer in French electronic rock band Phoenix, is "Too Young", featured in Lost in Translation, while another song, "Ou Boivent Les Loups", is showcased in Marie Antoinette.

For Coppola's part, she looks forward to a respite from the hoopla surrounding her film, and is now focused on the planned arrival of her baby girl in December. And hopefully the French will come to forgive her, since she plans on raising her daughter between New York and her boyfriend's home in Paris.

'Marie Antoinette' opens today

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