Favorites Revisited #2: Revamped Camp (or, Why You Hate ‘Marie Antoinette’)

Here’s why there are more people who hate Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” than those who love it – You don’t know what it is.

I’m not trying to be condescending here, but it’s the truth. Whenever I hear someone go on about why they didn’t like the film, it’s along the lines of: “What is this movie, with no story and bare minimum dialogue and 80s post-punk music over an 18th century setting and cakes and macrons everywhere? It must just be a movie aching for a Costume Design Oscar.”

I’m writing this post to tell you that the movie is none of those things. Well, I mean, those things are definitely big parts in the movie, but that’s not what it is. I’ll tell you what “Marie Antoinette” is – Camp. It might be obvious to some, but more often than not, I think people are confused about what the film is trying to do or be. But trust me, it’s easier to like it when you look at it for what it is: aesthetic-centered, revamped Camp set in 18th century Versailles.

Don’t believe me? To keep things brief and avoid long-winded-ness, I’ll list some points from the Encyclopedia of Camp – Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”:

1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

5. Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content. Concert music, though, because it is contentless, is rarely Camp. It offers no opportunity, say, for a contrast between silly or extravagant content and rich form. . .

38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

And finally…

13. The dividing line seems to fall in the 18th century; there the origins of Camp taste are to be found (Gothic novels, Chinoiserie, caricature, artificial ruins, and so forth.) But the relation to nature was quite different then. In the 18th century, people of taste either patronized nature (Strawberry Hill) or attempted to remake it into something artificial (Versailles). They also indefatigably patronized the past. Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.

I would like to let these definitions speak for themselves and draw their own connections. I believe Coppola’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a 1980s post-punk rock Material Girl is the essence of modern Campiness drawing on the past – as Camp tends to do (see #13). And the past of Versailles was almost too perfect to serve as the Camp backdrop.

That’s not to say that Coppola’s film is cinematically irrelevant. (And for me, this is where it gets touchy.) Of course one of the main purposes of the film is to be pretty. That’s Coppola’s whole film outlook – prettiness, shots through blades of grass, and Kirsten Dunsts lying outdoors in rustic white nightgowns. That’s what Coppola does. She cares about the beauty aesthetic. She chose film over the practical digital camera for Lost in Translation because digital wasn’t “romantic” enough. She wants to portray beauty and pretty things. Sorry, not to generalize here, but the men I’ve talked to don’t necessarily love this because they’re not used to it. Because 98% of the films we see are and have been made by men, not “girly” women like Sofia Coppola. Hell, who are we kidding? They’re hardly made by women period. But this aesthetic outlook should not be undermined in terms of art. Coppola said it best herself in her own defense: “You’re considered superficial and silly if you are interested in fashion, but I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.”

But back to Camp in particular – I think this whole explanation of what the film’s going to do is laid out right in front of us from the very opening shot. A French maid puts on Marie Antoinette’s shoes while the Queen sits amongst tables of cakes. The last we see of this shot is Kirsten Dunst licking cake off her finger and looking straight into the camera – breaking the fourth wall – with a devilish schoolgirl smirk. There it is. Right there. The whole film’s purpose revealed to us in one moment, and we missed it or forgot about it.  “The joke’s on you,” Sofia Coppola seems to say. The joke’s on you.

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9 thoughts on “Favorites Revisited #2: Revamped Camp (or, Why You Hate ‘Marie Antoinette’)

  1. YES! You’ve summed it up perfectly. That opening scene really does represent the entire film and it happens so suddenly, in less than 30 seconds that people easily ignored or missed it. It’s probably the most visually overwhelming moment in the entire film, completely packed with visual imagery. The first riffs of the Gang of Four song. Hell! Even choosing “Natural’s Not In It” sums it up perfectly. It was THE perfect song choice.

    http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/127403/

  2. This made me consider watching MA again. And in my defense, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. But I’ll give it a second chance… whenever I find time.

    • Yeah, I’m not saying everyone should automatically love it now that they look at it as Campy, but I’ve just found that a lot of people – particularly some male teachers I’ve had… – have just dismissed it as a “crappy movie” with lots of fluff.

      I personally find it to get better every time, but that’s just me!

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Colleen, because (as someone who totally not a studier of film) it made me realize why I liked “Marie Antoinette”.

    I was probably one of those people who was confused about what the film was trying to accomplish. I viewed it as a story of the ultimate disillusioned woman (we might have had that conversation, too).

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  7. This is a very smart review, but I would argue there is a lot of psychological depth beneath the surface. It’s very much meant to be a moodpiece at heart, showing the emotional conflict of a young girl forced into marriage and into a zoo of an environment. The aesthetics represented the lavishness of Versailles and the way in which MA saw it was reflected through the music.

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