In the 1780’s the French people were experiencing widespread unrest. A bad harvest and rising food prices, due to France’s financial involvement in the American War of Independence, meant that many could not afford to eat. Legend has it that on hearing this news Antoinette responded with, “let them eat cake.” Although, the word she actually used was ‘brioche’ a rich bread typically sold. Antoinette could have intended that brioche was made the same price as bread, in order to increase the amount of food available to buy. A modern reflection by The Times newspaper called this, “the most famous libel in history,” highlighting the injustice of quoting someone out of context.
Although Antoinette reigned over two centuries ago, the phrase has become a fixture in popular culture. In 2007 Sofia Coppola wrote and directed a feature film called ‘Marie Antoinette’ which was dubbed a ‘fresh’ interpretation of the famous monarch. One clip shows the character Antoinette lounging in a bath saying, “let them eat cake”, her lips painted black suggesting a poisonous tongue. Immediately afterwards a clip shows Antoinette talking with friends saying, “I would never say that”. Perhaps this is what is meant by a ‘fresh’ interpretation of events, interweaving rumour with a supposed reaction from the victim.
However, the fact that Coppola chose to use the line in the film at all highlights the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction. Coppola referred to her film as “impressionistic” and “telling it from Antoinette’s point of view”. Although, scenes of the ‘character’ Marie Antoinette reclining on a chaise longue and dipping a finger in various elaborate cakes does nothing to dispel the idea that Antoinette was over-indulgent and disdainful of the countries financial problems.
Coppola is not the only person in recent years who has represented Antoinette using style over substance. Fashion designer Thakoon’s autumn winter 2011 collection cited Marie Antoinette as an influence, as did John Galliano’s spring summer 2010 collection. Typically her name is used in fashion as short hand for excess and over embellishment. In reality Antoinette had much simpler taste, preferring to spend time in simple corset-less dresses in a chateau called Petit Trianon on the grounds of Versailles, in which incidentally she arranged for a small farm to be created.
Revolutionaries put Marie Antoinette to the guillotine in 1793, although she wasn’t buried properly until 1815. In a sense Antoinette has never been put to rest. Although interesting from an aesthetic point of view, films like Sofia Coppola’s do Antoinette a disservice by presenting her in a superficial light. Antoinette was accused of being out of touch with the French people, which I could similarly accuse Coppola of, who’s film really only serves to perpetuate the Antoinette myth.