The movie Marie Antoinette (2006) places a unique twist on one of the most famous royal families in history. What makes this movie stand out is its amalgamation of light-hearted pop-culture and historical representation. Originally from Austria, fourteen year old Marie Antoinette marries into the royalty of France as a form of diplomacy between the two countries. In her view of the film, director Sofia Coppola refuses to call it a historical documentation, asserting:
“It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.”
This got me thinking about Barthes argument about mythology. Barthes (1984) claims that “myth is a type of speech” and “speech of this kind is a message,” which involves photography, sport, shows and so on (p.108). If that is the case, then Marie Antoinette is a form of myth that challenges the problem of meaning. The director purposefully tries to break down and reproduce the meaning of what Marie Antoinette life was – exploring new boundaries in a new (modern) era.
Perhaps one of the most remembered scenes from this film is when Marie Antoinette and her coterie simply live the life of royalty in the 18th century. The clip below is called “I Want Candy,” synonymous for the title of the song by the New Wave band, Bow Wow Wow.
This all occurs while France is going through a massive food shortage. Riots ensue in and around the palace of Versailles where the royalties live. What I love about this piece is that the images of shoes, clothing, food and drinks are more than five second screen shots. As with Barthes inference of “a bunch of roses” signifying passion, the colorful shoes signify luxury and comfort, the decadent deserts signify an indifference to political upheavals, and the grand ensembles signify an intention by the royal family to maintain their lavish lifestyles. This persistent mixture occurs throughout the film, and one cannot help but notice all of the cultural sign systems present.
Movies are culture. As Lotman (1978) argues, “there are many ways of defining culture” (p. 211). I consider this movie as an impressive bridge of cultural and linguistic history – and I would have to disagree partially with the movie director that it is not a historical lesson. Marie Antoinette is a of course a historical lesson (we see her life portrayed in a new form) but it is also a semiotic lesson. Even though the movie is not in common format of a “historical” documentary, all of the signs and representations throughout the movie (such as in the clip above) are a new way of telling her story.
To use Lotman again, we should consider culture “as the long-term memory of the community…” (p.215). This movie is now a part of history, yet virtually anyone can access it across different mediums and apply their own take on the film, perhaps relating to the incompleteness of cultural objects – there is always room for re-visitation and re-purposing.
No one can go back in time to change the trajectory of Marie Antoinette’s life. However, movies may be the closest we can get to employ mythology and speech to repurpose the life of historical figures. Certain types of media have a great deal of power in which individuals can use to structure the pervasive symbols and artefacts we encounter every day.
Barthes,Roland. Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45).
Lotman, Yuri (1978). “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture”
“Marie Antoinette (2006 Film).” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 Feb 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Antoinette_(2006_film)
Marie Antoinette: “I Want Candy” [YouTube].