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.)


5 thoughts on “Kritical

  1. Thanks for the link, recordingsurface. I hope this won’t be too churlish but your take on the movie puzzles me. You seem to notice that it is not realist (this is hard to miss):

    Coppola’s consistent refusal to submit to the logics (aesthetic and political) of representation.

    then interpret it just as if it were:

    For the ruling classes, in Coppola’s view, the opposition is always irrelevant and utterly outside.

    that is, as if the “ruling class” were not only represented in the movie, but represented in a kind of 19th century realist novel fashion so as to warrant your deeming these representations strictly mimetic and in fact typical (representing not only a ruling class but all ruling classes), so that what they are like is assumed to be a statement about what their referents are like.

    How do you figure these characters generate a thesis about “the ruling class” of any sort, let alone a really strong statement about what “the ruling class” is “always” like the one you derive? In the absence of both the aesthetic and political logic of representation?

  2. Az–I hope you like(d) it. I admit, though, that I’m disposed to dig her work, having really liked the previous two movies, and that I read the movie to one side a bit, the side opposite the initial reaction it received.

    Chabert–Not churlish. Well noticed. It’s a tension I felt as I was writing this. The distinction I would make is that whereas my review represents, Coppola presents. She is not using Antoinette to represent an idea or an ideology or a sociology, as, say, Linklater did in Fast-Food Nation. The second sentence you quote (a poorly worded late-night add-on gone awry that was not meant to imply a timeless statement about ruling classes and shouldn’t have been attributed to Coppola) was supposed to be about kritical realism’s representation of the class conflict, which I naturally substituted with my far superior representation.

  3. It’s really a pity that John Pistelli’s piece was deleted with his blog; it was very observant and persuasive. I think it would be nearly impossible for any viewer to sustain the association you have at work here between this film and the object of remarks by Badiou. I don’t think this could be sustained past the credit sequence, which alludes to the work of Kathy Acker, with that sountrack and gives us the real “period” of the period piece: the 1980s. About how that tradition is deployed, John said this:

    Did you have anything specific in mind for ’80s pomo? I think on BlackAmazon’s thread or maybe some other thread you mentioned Kathy Acker. I’ve never been able to read her other than interviews, but her thing was to rewrite or re-arrange material like Don Quixote or Great Expectations or even stuff like Harold Robbins novels in order to…what? Write the body and its desire and fluidity of identity into them or something similar, if I’m remembering correctly. I can see that as commodification: expropriating a textual common, re-branding it (“Now with extra desire!”), putting your name on it, making a profit from it; and I think in Acker’s work this involves a heightened form of the textual totalitarianism we see in the film: the plagiarism and cut-up method of Acker (and Burroughs), while ostensibly offering the reader the freedom or pleasure of the signifier in the Barthesian phrase, or the destruction of the repressing machine as Acker herself says, actually contorts the reader’s understanding in very rigid ways; elements of the text tend to signify less, not more, in such performances; because the relationship of signifiers is unstable, the drive toward meaning becomes more urgent so that the absence of narrative and syntactical logic actually shackles the understanding (and probably desire too) rather than freeing it, as you might say it’s free when it encounters a more “sociable” text. And the way these avant-garde art practices get sold in the market relies on pure in-the-know hipsterism, as is more evident in the various music scenes with which Coppola is associated.

    That really captures to me how the design period (“ancien regime last days”) is used here; “marie antoinette” is a kind of tropic label for the film, the way a perfume might be labelled “Casanova”. This rather laboured construction of the intersection of various 80s genres and tics (bright lights, big city, slaves of new york, less than zero, john hughes, Amadeus, dangerous liaisons, madonna videos, marylin monroe) interferes with any attempt to make “the royals” or “the monarchy” “represent” the same or a related object of analysis as evoked by your Badiou fragment. The obsession about the budget, over-budget profligacy, over-budget depravity, seems to bewail the tragedy and villification of Daddy Coppolla and Zoetrope rather more loudly than Bourbons or Mitterand and France.

  4. Hi my name is Vincent, I am John Pistelli’s younger brother and I was wondering if you knew his email address since I can’t ask him due to the fact he lives in Minnesota and I live in Pittsburgh. I just want him to email me his book because originally I wanted to copy and paste it to my computer, but I can’t since I found his webpage was deleted.

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