Finally saw Marie Antoinette this weekend, and I was impressed with Coppola’s consistent refusal to submit to the logics (aesthetic and political) of representation. This refusal probably explains why the movie received such an icy reception when it was released, particularly from the left. Blogwise, ever-churlish Chabert led the charge, of course, but others were either baffled by or denounced Coppola’s failure to craft an explicit statement against the last French royal couple’s opulence, detachment, and exploitative and antidemocratic rule. The idea implicit in these critiques was that Coppola should have drawn a parallel between today’s gilded age and yesterday’s, and made explicit the repetition of crass materialism, unapologetic oligarchy, and sham democracy. A nice blueprint for revolution would have been helpful as well. Call the critiques, with K-Punk‘s notion of capitalist realism in mind, examples of critical realism.
But Coppola is not aiming for critique. (Thank god — does anyone really want to hear Francis Coppola’s child’s diagnosis of what’s wrong with the world?) Marie Antoinette, like all of Coppola’s movies, in fact evades critique as much as it evades trying to mine the depths of her characters. Everything is surface; there are no penetrations of the psyche or revelatory surprises. Because of this, and because the characters are barely individuated — other than Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Antoinette, the people in the movie are largely without name, function, or definite status — it works almost exclusively on an affective level, not on an ideological one, and even takes affect as one of its themes. This is most noticeable in the prominent role that gossip plays in the movie. The content of the gossip is largely unknown, since a lot of it is inaudible, as if the meaning of the words is irrelevant compared to the affect they have and the connections they create. Further, these whisperings usually emanate from disembodied, anonymous voices and typically concern an unnamed or unknown person. In other words, Coppola places gossip in the film so that it often has neither a subject nor an object. It is instead a discontinuous hum surrounding the characters, the social bond between the royal family and its support staff.
As the film progresses, as the royal family begins its fall, the tone of the film changes. Antoinette grows tired of her life, has an affair, and fantasizes about escape, and Louis XVI must do kingly things. In other words, the affective pitch shifts: the characters become individuated, and affect turns into emotion. (Obviously, here I’m drawing heavily on — that is, ripping off — Massumi’s and Posthegemony‘s work on affect.) More important than the specific causes of the royal family’s downfall, however, is that Coppola seems to indicate that the undoing comes not from outside but, as Badiou might say, from “the strictly immanent effect of its capacities being exhausted.” This both validates and frustrates critical realism: validates because it resonates with contemporary leftist complaints about an empire in decline, incompetent economic and political administration, and a decadent ruling class; frustrates because the opposition played no part in the fall and was an impotent political force in the event. For the ruling classes, in Coppola’s view, the opposition is always irrelevant and utterly outside.
But this misses the point, or rather only captures part of what Coppola is after. In her fleeting references to this outside, to the rebellion, she presents it not only as populist but one that finds its mode of expression in the same language used by Antoinette and the royal classes: the language of money. Just as Antoinette can only find satisfaction by spending, the opposition only registers its protests in the terms provided by the general equivalent: “Queen of Deficit” and “Marie Antoinette is spending France into the ground” are the slogans used by the revolution. Rather than being completely separated from one another, the ruling classes and the critical revolution are united by their love of money and their love of France. The national economy is inviolable.
(Part 2 will have more about critical realism and how this all relates to today.)