Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette
Politics, empathy and egotism in ‘macaron timeclash’
Some time ago I asked Metropolitan contributor and art academic Annette whether she could write something about the production design of recent historical dramas. I’d noticed I was seeing pastels and Prussian blue everywhere, and that the stylish stranglehold of minimalism had been thrown off in favour of a riot of clashing patterns and textures. And that so many costume dramas were suddenly so damn gorgeous. I assumed there must be a presiding creative genius somewhere, and I wanted to know who it was.
Annette didn’t write the piece because she doesn’t watch costume dramas, but I do, and I kept seeing those rose pinks and eggshell blues, drop-dead textiles and wonderfully intricate clothes: in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018), in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), in Catherine-Empress-of-Russia twerkathon The Great (2020--), in Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton (2020--), and in the extremely divisive film version of Persuasion (2022). A genre as well developed as this deserves a name, so I’m going with ‘macaron timeclash’.
Aside from exquisite production and costume design, the signature move of macaron timeclash is that it mashes 21st-century speech and behaviour into historical storylines, producing an intentional clash between formal sets and costumes and jarringly informal modern behaviour. The artifice and anachronism are the point. The settings are all ‘real world’ - Victorian London, Regency Bath - and feature real historical events and people. These are not free-floating fantasies. But the dialogue ranges from casually modern to pure online, and the actors’ physical movements are explicitly modern too; people range and lope and slouch, and almost every one of these shows features people at a ball Voguing.
Take The Favourite, which is centred around the true story of Queen Anne’s fervent relationships with her women attendants. Set in London in the first decade of the 1700s, the characters speak perfect Millennial; they also sigh and yell and roll their eyes, give each other handjobs and punch each other in the face. Anne and her favourites have explicit sexual relationships and discuss cunnilingus. The film is based on Ophelia Field’s impeccably factual book of the same name (which I recommend, if you’re tickled by that sort of thing) and for the avoidance of doubt let me just assure you that nothing listed above actually happened IRL.
And yet it’s a very enjoyable and quite moving account of a story that not many people knew. The anachronism is serving the film’s central argument: that women in the early eighteenth century, whoever they were, had almost no sexual agency. Many of their sexual choices - even the lesbian ones - amounted to different kinds of prostitution or coerced intimacy.
To make this case the film needs to show us women’s lives from women’s perspectives. That’s tricky to do within the formula of a conventional historical drama, because these are hidden histories. The Favourite uses anachronism to make the implicit explicit, articulating perspectives that a more strait-laced adaptation could only hint at. To put it another way, it’s hard to be historically accurate without replicating the suppression of women and minoritised groups. Contemporary creatives are increasingly (and understandably) reluctant to be complicit in further erasure; the macaron timeclash template offers a way out.
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It’s not a coincidence, then, that this genre is usually consciously politically progressive. It reclaims and reinterprets marginalised histories, and has been at the forefront of colour-blind/colour-conscious casting. This leftish emphasis on representation and reclamation (I mean, it’s hardly Ken Loach1) often extends into explicit editorialising. Sometimes it can be irksome: Eloise in Bridgerton wants nothing more than to talk about women’s education, like a Facebook friend promoting a petition about badgers. But in Copperfield the politics are so affirmative and optimistic, and so subtly seeded, that you want to dash your hat to the ground and give a huzzah. Copperfield asserts that Britain, because of its diversity, has the capacity for great empathy and resilience. I saw it on the night before the UK officially left the EU and it was a wonderful balm on that bitter Brexity evening.
So it’s interesting that the very first entry into the macaron timeclash genre was explicitly apolitical. Some of you will have been screaming ‘Marie Antoinette!’ since you read the first paragraph, but the negative critical response to Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film put me off; I only dug it out as an afterthought when researching this piece. And it’s an absolute flipping triumph. Everything about it - from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Hong Kong Gardens’ playing at a masked ball, to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of a pair of pale blue Converse boots - looks more era-defining with every year.
It’s here, of course, that you will find the explanation for this trend in production design. Coppola had an enormous budget and the keys to Versailles, and made full use of both. She bought a box of Laduree macarons for her costume designer and asked her to take her inspiration from them, unleashing nearly two decades’ worth of screen inspo and inadvertently kickstarting a macaron revival at the same time. (I’m here from the British 1980s to remind you about macaroons, which inspired zero runway trends.)
The film has no interest in 21st-century politics; it’s not even interested in French Revolutionary politics. The queen’s life ended in a terrifying storm of sexually-inflected political violence, but Coppola ends the film just as that story is beginning. It’s a narrative decision so perverse that only an immense talent could have taken it. Instead, she focuses on sensation and emotion; this is why she makes so much use of colour and textiles and contemporary pop music, which she uses to summon the fever of adolescence. She says she wanted the story to be ‘girly’ and accessible; she wanted to ‘bring Marie Antoinette into now’ - or, as Roger Ebert said in his review, ‘the contemporary references invite the audience to share her present with ours’. This is a key point, and a key dividing line within the genre. Bringing Marie Antoinette into now - telling her story in a way that provokes empathy 200 years later - is very different from taking the 21st century into Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette drove some critics absolutely mad on release - the New York Times famously printed two opposing reviews side-by-side, and after its Cannes screening the film’s PR said ‘to be clear, yes, there was some booing’ - but after 17 increasingly delirious years it now looks strikingly restrained. The timeclash effect is sparingly used; aside from some brief touches - the pre-credits sequence with Kirsten Dunst winking at the audience, the flash of Converse boots - explicit anachronism is mostly confined to the soundtrack, as in the blissful layering of Bow Wow Wow onto a hazy post-party sunrise.
Unlike later examples of the genre, there’s no back-projection of modern political and social values. Marie Antoinette was not a feminist, she was not feisty, she was not clever, and the film is fine with that. By inviting us into her world, and using costume and colour and some modern flourishes to show us something emotionally rich, Coppola leaves us with a fuller idea of this woman, and how she came to make the mistakes that contributed to her undoing. Similarly, by the end of Copperfield Dickens’s world, not our world, has been brought to life.
This effect - the beguiling but psychologically authentic portrayal of a character’s emotional and intellectual landscape - is dependent on dialogue. Both Copperfield and Marie Antoinette are very careful with words, and modern idiom is used sparingly. In Copperfield much of the dialogue is only slightly adapted from the book (aside from the lovely sequence in which the daffy Dora reclaims some agency by saying ‘I don’t fit Davy. Write me out.’) In Marie Antoinette the dialogue is perceptibly but subtly modern, and the modernity is used only to convey the sense that these young people were modern, at the time, as all young people are. Most of what is said is featherweight and entirely forgettable; there’s no verbal sharp-wittedness or sass. In fact there’s very little dialogue at all, and the first 20 minutes are almost wordless.
Language reveals the nature of a society; the way people speak and write, and the things they speak and write about (and the things they don’t speak and write about) are umbilically connected with how they see the world. This is why Coppola and Iannucci’s careful dialogue matters so much in bringing Then to Now, but not Now to Then. You can muck about as much as you like with music and clothing and the actual historical whereabouts of the Duke of Whatever on a particular day in 1728. But when you dramatically change the way characters speak, you’re changing their fundamental conceptual universes. You’re taking the Now into Then; you’re making a show about the 2020s, not the 1820s.
Putting full-fat contemporary dialogue into the mouths of characters in Bridgerton and Persuasion makes those characters the products of the 21st century, with all of our beliefs and preoccupations and cultural specificity. It de-natures the historical setting and changes the things these characters are able to conceive of. It’s here that these shows become unmoored from their historical contexts.
This may well be entirely deliberate - indeed, The Favourite is very enjoyable and interesting, despite it2 - and generally I try to just let people enjoy things. But I think the growing popularity of this genre, as demonstrated in the popularity of Bridgerton and the fact that Persuasion got made at all - reveals a strain of egotism, an unwillingness to put ourselves to one side for an hour or two. It's as though we find ourselves so fascinating we can't bear to watch something in which we're not present. Marie Antoinette asks us to step outside our contemporary universe and summon an act of genuine empathy for this incurious, passive, acquisitive woman. Coppola used anachronism to make this process easier for us, not to prevent us having to do it at all. In Bridgerton and Persuasion and The Great we are shown only ourselves. The characters are us, self-aware and hyper-educated and modern and feisty, but dressed in amazing outfits while - oh no! - being married off to ridiculously hot aristocrats. The bodice-ripper formula, in other words.
This egotism sometimes extends into the progressive politics, or rather into the blunt way modern progressive values are superimposed. Incuriosity about the intellectual contexts of previous eras combines with editorial chuntering to produce a slippery implication that sexism, racism and homophobia persisted because people in history were just very stupid. Against the dreary masses, these characters - the revamped Anne Elliott of 2021’s Persuasion, Eloise in Bridgerton - are the audience’s avatars, shining like enlightened stars over a dungheap. The effect is to grease the audience’s egos while actively blocking any understanding we might be in danger of developing.
This political self-congratulation is all the more provoking when you consider that this genre never centres poverty; partly because there’s no way to make it picturesque, and partly because the only happy solution - these shows tend towards happiness and optimism - is to leave it behind. But perhaps this, too, is a logical outcome of the form: macaron timeclash strives to reflect the audience back at themselves, and we are all among the richest and most materially indulged people who have ever lived.
It is possible to represent and reclaim without this egotism. In Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (definitely not macaron timeclash, although the interiors are amazing) Peter Guillam, a rather caddish heterosexual in the book, is gay. In a painful silent scene shot partly through a window we see Guillam dumping his long-term partner, because his relationship is illegal and his job places him at risk of blackmail. It’s a brilliantly economical bit of character development that very effectively presses the ‘update’ button by adding something complex, insightful and valuable.
There are good reasons for the popularity of macaron timeclash. It’s fresh and sexy and progressive and gorgeous, like a killer Instagram feed. Its narrative architecture - young people seeking romantic and personal fulfilment - is intuitive and adaptable. The restraints offered by historical settings are brilliant for plotting: no hook-ups, no smartphones, no combustion engine. The aesthetic is ravishing, and it must be tempting to imagine that in a world where David Copperfield can wear a patterned azure waistcoat, a noisy cream blouson and apricot and grey checked trousers, anything goes. If you’re just looking for a bit of entertainment, god knows there are worse things to watch. But it’s significant that Marie Antoinette was made by an auteur with a highly developed and specific aim in mind. A genre as seductive and hot-blooded as this requires unusually strong handling if it is to be more Coppola than Cartland.
For more period reinventions, try Rowan’s look at the women who rewrite history:
Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995), set during the Spanish Civil War, includes a 20-minute segment literally debating the pros and cons of collectivised agriculture.
You might reasonably be objecting at this point that I'm including The Favourite in both the ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ categories, and that’s because I’m genuinely not quite sure what I think about it. It makes its points about women’s sexual agency very successfully, but in doing so it occludes something important. The long sequence in which Sarah Churchill is lost in a bordello in the woods, allowing Abigail Masham to seize the position of Favourite, is entirely made up. In real life Churchill was absent from court during this time because one of her many children, borne from her thoroughly happy and sexually active marriage, was dying. In making a (good) point about Court-as-brothel, the film erases fundamental parts of Sarah Churchill’s identity. It also presents her as being totally cool with sex workers, a piece of 21st-century commentary that, to put it mildly, has no basis in fact; if you’d told the Duchess of Marlborough you thought she was essentially a prostitute she’d probably have got her husband to blast you out of a cannon.