Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Royal Chic (Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette)

The trailer for Sophia Coppola's new movie Marie Antoinette may make you think of a lot of things. It may invoke a mental picture of hipsters taking over the French monarchy. It may make you want to take torches and pitchforks to Williamsburg. It may make you look at modern pre-pubescent girls and shake your head at their pronounced lack of leadership skills.

As for me? It makes me think of social structures.

Marie Antoinette existed at a strange time and place for politics. 18th-century France was one of the first cultures to embrace public politics, and it was the birthplace of the celebrity personality. Okay, so democracy had happened before (ancient Greece?) and politics have always affected the plebian masses... but this process was never so transparent and urgent as it was in France, at this time, with these people.

The resulting phenomena: capricious passion about political personalities, love and hatred and anger that could explode and flatline with no apparent warning or justification. This volatile public opinion was a form of distraction for the masses, who weren't particularly fascinated with their own everyday lives, but it was complicated by the fact that the "public personalities" were burdened by responsibility for state affairs.

As much as we'd like to hold modern celebrity culture in contempt, it's more rational in at least this one respect. These days, celebrities are free to flaunt their personalities any way they want... making statements about international issues or insulting jews and calling cops "Sugartits," it's all par for the course. Ultimately, bad (read: autonomous, irresponsible) behavior can just run down the drainpipe, because Hollywood is basically a strange and irrelevant universe unto itself. The worst an idiot actor has to fear is that people won't watch his or her movies.

Now, admittedly, there's some celebrity status wrapped up in the political world, and it seems like some politicians have coasted on the merits of their personalities. But take note: even if we're only concerned with conformism or charisma, at least we have to pretend we have political reasons for our policy decisions. Ultimately, politicians are held to a certain type of logic.

That's how politics and entertainment have evolved: they now work on separate modes of logic and discourse... reason, responsibility, and accountability (politics) versus spectacle, amusement, and personality (celebrity).

People like Marie Antoinette had to deal with a world where these two things were mixed up in an irresolvable orgy of public opinion. She was a politician who was watched like she was on reality TV, a victim of the soul-destroying voyeurism that's embodied in modern paparazzi culture. Having a sexually inept husband wasn't just an issue for the tabloids... it was an issue of heredity, of physiological defect, and of bad leadership.

This was the life of a celebrity suddenly placed at the head of a political structure. Just think: you're raised from childhood in a world where you have every privilege, where you're taught that your superiority entitles you to life as you see fit, and then you're thrust into a role of personal responsibility for a country in turmoil... your become the sovereign ruler of a public that's straining at the leash, desperate to blame someone for their discontent, and your life and death depend upon your perceived political success. A life of leisure, suddenly placed under the most intense pressure any individual is ever asked to withstand.

It's hard to cast Marie Antoinette as either a hero (as Sophia Coppola seems to have attempted) or as a villain (as public opinion once held of her) because she was at the nexus of so many uncontrollable forces. It's not that she didn't have autonomy... it's just that her image is a cross-product of vicious gossip, of royalist legend, of decadent socialization, of scandal, of public scrutiny, of a general revolutionary cynicism regarding authority, and of a thousand other things.

And this, I hope, is what Coppola captures: that anyone living in the face of an opinionated public, especially an adolescent female thrust into a world of power and politics, automatically loses control of their own image and identity. In a politically cynical, celebrity-centered culture, public image is torn away from the actual personality and behavior that should ideally determine it. Marie Antoinette's final heroism is simply to have lived her own life in the midst of a world that tried to make her into a thousand things at once.

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