Based on the recent Marie-Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser, Sofia Coppola's film focuses on the personal qualities of the character of Marie-Antoinette and thus participates in the character's historical rehabilitation. Antoinette is seen as a respectful loyal daughter, a loving mother, a patient wife, who had to withstand a flood of vindictive criticism since the moment she set foot in the French court. This depiction contrasts strongly with many prior representations of the character in film ("The Affair of the Necklace" for example), which show her as superficial, selfish and vain.
The visuals and auditory elements, which evoke a powerful image of 18th-century Versailles, are the movie's forte. And their effects linger in one's mind (or at least they did in mine) long after one's exit from the theater. As a budding art historian, I was stunned by the intensely lush visual spectacle the film has to offer: the pomp and circumstance of ritualized and regimented 18th-century Versailles. The semi-private world that Antoinette builds for herself to escape Versailles's codified, quasi-totalitarian atmosphere, is evoked through a sequence of fast-moving images of champagne-guzzling, beautifully-decorated cake-eating, and Manolo Blahnik shoe buying. Thus Antoinette's fantasy world is likened to a world recognizable to you, me and Carrie Bradshaw. Some people may scoff at this 21st century world transposed to an earlier time. But as the center of the world in 18th-century Europe, Marie-Antoinette's "secret Versailles" would certainly have been as "hip" as this, and Coppola has found effective means through sound and image by which to make this hipness accessible.
The story zooms in on the character of Marie-Antoinette, played by a ravishing Kirsten Dunst, who arrives at Versailles at the tender age of 14, to become queen of France a mere 5 years later. Coppola emphasizes the loneliness of Antoinette throughout the film: most important is her alienation from the French court by the fact that she is a foreigner (something that made her a scapegoat for all of France's problems during the 1780's). Her powerlessness to "fit in" is emphasized also through her sexual alienation from her socially-awkward husband (played by Jason Schwartzmann), her mother's chidings that she has not yet produced an heir to the French throne (and thereby has not secured Austria's political place in Europe), and the bitchy gossip that goes on behind her back at court.
Marie-Antoinette is depicted as an intensely personable, friendly and playful person. Coppola fashions a Marie-Antoinette who is a dutiful daughter, a patient wife to Louis (who eventually overcomes his shyness and becomes a loving and protective husband and father), and a caring and tender mother. She is shown as both bold and humble, two qualities which had quasi-miraculous effects on both the court and the angry mob, as is shown in some of the film's most touching moments.
Equipped with these "essential" personal qualities, the charges traditionally made against Marie-Antoinette fade completely. It is precisely Antoinette's ill-fated attempt at fitting into French court society that causes her escape into a world of idle futility and libertinage. Her escape into the world of "playing shepherdess" in her pleasure-house of Le Hameau is shown not as a silly escape from responsibility but as the simple human need to be surrounded by the natural world. This place appears to us as it does to Antoinette: as a refuge from the backbiting, totalitarian regime of Versailles. Even the legendary "let them eat cake" statement allegedly made by Marie-Antoinette is discarded as fiction.
There is almost no place in the film for the 18th-century reality as it existed outside the bubble-like world of Versailles. This is not the movie's purpose. The end of the film is a bit abrupt: the last image shows the royal family heading to Paris to be imprisoned in the building of the Conciergerie. There is no mention of the guillotine anywhere, which again can seem surprising, but which shows that Coppola deliberately tried to eschew stereotypes and do something different. And it is all to her credit.