sofia coppola, marie antoinette, georgina elliot and eric rohmer

February 17, 2010

posted and written by caroline picard

I just watched Rohmer’s The Lady and The Duke–a movie that came out in 2001. The movie is rich with color, each scene looking like it takes place within a soft-wash vintage postcard painting, the figures within the grand sets appear at first to be still before suddenly coming to life with the pan of a camera. As a result everything feels staged, calling attention to the artiface of the medium of film, particularly a film that looks back on an historical era. That approach adds its own sensibility to our perception of that era, pointing to the way our ideas of history stem almost entirely from the decorations, (frames, paintings, rugs, furniture) of that same era. The main character is an English woman, Georgina Elliot, a royalist who cannot help but maintain her love and sympathy for the aristocracy. She has servants. She wears gargantuan hats and conducts her life in a series of parlor meetings with various political figures who, like her, are navigating the rapid changes of their socio-political context. Robespierre makes a few appearances. As do heads on stakes, the rabble, the idealist, the reformist. What is intriguing is how Rohmer captures the difficult and perhaps even unnatural balance between political beliefs and human affection. The Duke, bound by pressures of his own political party, condemns the king to death. Elliot, a former lover and great friend, takes down the Duke’s portrait by way of response. She describes the day of the king’s execution as the darkest day of her life. Nevertheless, her friendship with the Duke endures, pointing to the mutual respect each guards for the other.

I couldn’t help but compare Coppola’s Marie Antoinette–equally rich in color and setting, the sympathy and context for the main character is nevertheless vastly different. Antoinette is a young woman cast into a situation over which, Coppola seems to argue, she has no control. Perhaps the funniest moment is when Antoinette must pass from Austrian territory in France. She is forced to undress in a kind of ritual shedding of her old country. She is forced to leave her dog behind. It’s the first time that Kirsten Dunst speaks and suddenly after the silent solemnity of old places, the Hollywood starlet says something idiotic, with an American accent, (I can’t remember the name of the dog but..) “Dingbell.” Coppola’s Antoinette finds power in fashion, cakes, the ability to spend money and lose herself in social gatherings. In Coppola’s vision, Antoinette becomes a rock star, subject to the structure of royalty which she has no choice but to inhabit. Her frivolity is a kind of rebellion, with the Clash playing in the background–the film itself seems more suited to a music video.

In contrast to Rohmer, Coppola’s view of the times feels more America. Insensitive to the intricate depth of a country’s aristocratic history. She seems to identify with Antoinette, revealing more about Coppola’s own position of celebrity, using the surface of French history to describe the pangs of a Hollywood Temple. (i.e. Copolla was born into a dynasty that comes with its own unavoidable responsibility. Nevertheless, that dynasty is one belonging to a very young country and is situated in the simulacra world of film.) To Coppola, Antoinette is just a girl, lost in sea of too much money and the pressures of fame. Disconnected from the weight of history and prominence, Antoinette becomes herself a surface. A petty heroine. Someone, perhaps, more in league with the “One Dimensional Woman” that Power addresses in her  work of the same name.

Rohmer, meanwhile presents a woman on the edge of aristocracy. An expatriate (it’s interesting that Coppola, as an American, chooses someone so central to French history, while Rohmer as a Frenchman, chooses someone peripheral to the cause), Elliot nevertheless exerts constant influence on her surroundings, making deliberate decisions, discussing politics with great awareness and clarity. Elliot is connected to a sense of consequence. She is more powerful than Antoinette, despite the powerless she is struggling with (i.e. that she is not in control of the world in which she lives, that those she cares about are being executed, even that she loves and admires a ruling class–one that I have less sympathy for). Ultimately, Elliot’s well articulated grace, elicits more sympathy for Marie Antoinette than Coppola. Just as her counterpoint, The Duke, evokes a sympathy for a more democratic idealism. One just as fraught with corruption.

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