Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette (US, 2006) is about fashion and the construction of feminine identity — but not those of ancien-régime France. Rather, it is a modern consideration of contemporary sartorial networks that reflects an ironic twenty-first-century attitude that the filmmaker has come herself to represent. It is the modern rather than the historical qualities of the film that have captured the attention of most reviewers; but what, precisely, is “modern” about Marie Antoinette, and how is the film's modernity distinguishable from the labels of “postmodern” and “pastiche” that have been used, often unflatteringly, to describe Coppola's works?
The answer to the former question seems obvious: although set in revolutionary France and filmed in the very halls of Versailles where the Austrian-born queen resided, the film takes clear liberties with historical accuracy and provides a post-punk sound track and contemporary-sounding dialogue as it playfully captures the experience of modern feminine adolescence. However, the film's modernity lies more interestingly in the way in which its self-conscious reinterpretation of linear history makes it a successful expression of the modernity theorized by Walter Benjamin. Fashion is a crucial signifier that enables Benjamin to articulate the temporal instability that is, for him, constitutive of modernity; fashion is also a vital tool used by Coppola to overlap her life with the modern Marie Antoinette that she creates in her film. Yet despite Coppola's prominence as a contemporary maker of style, her insistence on her primary role as maker of movies invites us to read her interpretation of the life of the Austrian dauphine as a commentary on her own experience as a contemporary woman filmmaker, one that has proven to be as problematic as Marie Antoinette's eighteenth-century experience as the queen of France.