Opera Meets Film: How a Rameau Aria Illuminates Subtext in Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’

By John Vandevert

Marie Antoinette managed to make both the palatine, French nobility, the bourgeoise and the working-class revile her before the end of her tumultuous reign as queen to the last king of the House of Bourbon. She has been since depicted as a foreign intruder who shamelessly feasted on the sumptuous trappings of aristocratic life with almost immoral gluttony. The common narrative of this child queen, married at the age of 14 to then 15 year-old Louis XVI and subsequently forced into a suffocating life of opulence and socially-determined expectations, is that she abhorred the poor, spent with reckless abandon and revelled in debauched pleasures. Throughout her reign she willfully ignored the growing socio-political and economic dissatisfaction outside her gilded cage: an outlook that would be her downfall.

But what if we had it all wrong? What if the disparaging assumptions made about “the Austrian woman” were only one side of a story about a fiercely independent and audacious young woman who was transformed—admittedly not entirely unwillingly—into a victim of horrendously difficult circumstances?

In 2006, American film director Sofia Coppola answered this very question with “Marie Antoinette:” a modernized, though humanly authentic, retelling of the story of the ill-fated queen. An observer becomes almost uncomfortably privy to the vulnerable and wholly disorientating aspects of her historical personhood. The pop/classical character of the biopic’s music is an intriguing window into the mindset of the eccentrically perturbed queen, where recognizable rock jams are paired with clean, baroque refinement, producing a sympathetic bridge between the past and the present. This allows the viewer to plainly see Antoinette for what she was forced to become: “a woman being turned into an object that is traded.”

Enter Rameau

Coppola’s usage of Rameau’s dolefully angelic aria “Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux” from his opera “Castor et Pollux,” squarely personifies Antoinette’s resolute courage in the face of universal assault, however, and paints her as more than the egotistical aristocrat history remembers.

Rameau’s decadent, melodic fluidity and its penetrative, orchestral underpinnings cinematically occupy a significant moment in Antoinette’s tortuous courtly existence. Antoinette consistently failed, for seven years, to produce a male heir. Such a failure of the norms of 17th-century French high society caused the young queen constant disquietude.

Although opera is now considered to be the dramatic, fantastic expression of life, during the Age of Reason opera instead symbolized the manifestation of human passions through meticulously formal structuring; something Philosopher Lorenz Mizler called “an unconscious mathematical exercise of the soul” (Lang, 1967). For Rameau this meant embracing and improving the dualities of music, amalgamating reason and feelings. He aimed to transform a form of emotional expression previously considered weak into an intuitively-sensed, euphonious process of stirring universality; one where text and harmony complimented each other in a practically unconscious, organic reciprocity. Rameau dared to create living, breathing attractiveness whose textual life was just as important as its musical organ. Rameauian Scholar Dr. Cynthia Verbia points to an oft-overlooked but important truth, stating, “Today, we take for granted that music is an expressive language… In Rameau’s time, such views…were far from accepted” (Verba, 2013).

Rameau’s attempts to say something through music, though still contained within traditional means, was a monumental affair and directly correlates to the universal loathing of Antoinette. As recalcitrant as she was, she remained a perfectly idiosyncratic human trying her best to stay within the boundaries delineated by etiquette. To understand the scene where Rameau and Antoinette combine, one must realize that the music being performed would have been, in and of itself, tastefully foreign. Paired with the carnage wrought by Antoinette—the distasteful foreigner—and the grievous sonorities of the opera become Antoinette’s lament. Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux is Antoinette’s realization of her pitiful condition as the scapegoat for the fall of the House of Bourbon. As one viewer of Coppola’s film aptly states, “She was only a girl when she began to reign. She was still very young for such responsibilities and always wanted a life of normality… The truth was that France as a country began to fail and she had no experience in the political field. I don’t think the French parliament, made up of men, would take her seriously.”

Antoinette had begun to lose the false sense of agency she had once cherished and become distressingly aware of the seditious and sneering ridicule surrounding her.

But Why?

There is one vital detail not yet mentioned which helps answer the question of – why did Coppola choose this aria for this scene? The cinematic scene takes place in the film’s last quarter. It follows after both the royal couple’s difficulties to conceive and the birth of Marie’s daughter, which was a problem and one of the main reasons why Antoinette had to mature so quickly. She has begun to realize the gravity of her decisions and the fickleness of her character.

The scene begins with a decadent caricaturist portrait of the queen before panning into Rameau’s opera in The Queen’s Theatre within the Petit Trianon; Antoinette’s resplendent get-away from the prying eyes of Versailles. Here she witnesses the sonorous lamentations of the inconsolable Telaira who, after finding out her beloved Castor has been killed, becomes consumed with grief. “No, I shall no longer see anything other than your funereal beams,” she cries, rebuking the light of day. At the conclusion of the aria, Antoinette begins to applaud, a significant faux pas in 18th century France. The poignancy of the scene comes in the reaction to this momentary lapse in etiquette: unlike previous occasions when Antoinette has induced the audience to follow her in applause, now they look upon her with disdain. She realizes she is no longer the beloved, juvenile Queen she once was, but a woman despised, the symbol of demoralizing, foreign influence.

As the audio of the opera continues and Telaira mourns Castor’s loss, we see a portrait of Antoinette and her four children carried into an empty room and mounted. The painting is then swiftly taken down and replaced with a near-identical portrait, now with one child missing: Marie’s fourth child Sophie Helena Beatrice. The significance of this alteration to the portrait becomes clear in the same way that Antoinette has become Telaira: the broken queen watches courtly pallbearers move a little coffin into the back of a black-and-white hearse and depart Versailles. In the horse-drawn hearse goes her daughter and a part of her heart. She is subsequently seen disheveled, walking down a marbled hallway in an unassuming mourning dress while guards stand to attention in the background, highlighting the disjunction of her real suffering with her pompous image. She walks alone in the palace gardens, her meager frame set against the backdrop of endless, foliage showing how powerless she really was within Versailles, both as a woman and a queen. Finally, as Rameau’s anguishing and protracted piece comes to a close, we see her in a simple white frock, cuddling in bed with her eldest daughter, forcing the viewer to realize that for as ignorant as Antoinette was, she felt pain, loss, and sorrow just like everyone else.

The “just like everyone else” aspect is pivotal when judging apparently repulsive historical figures for their ethical constitution; people often vilify the past with a disturbing amount of laxity. The case of Marie Antoinette is no exception. The general consensus today is that she was nothing more than a capricious, apathetic narcissist who cared little for others and was justly executed for her debauched passions. This type of historical ignorance, however, completely overlooks the fact that she was forced by her mother into a politically motivated marriage at an extremely young age, expected to satiate animosity between Austria and France through her goodwill and benevolence, had to preserve her “goddess-like” appearance and was required to conduct herself in a morally responsible and truly Catholic manner, all the while completing her matronly duties in an expedited fashion.

Historian Dr. Kalyn R. Baldridge put the couple’s involuntary role thusly; “Marie Antoinette and her new husband were indeed expected to rid Versailles of moral corruptness, so much that French writers even anticipated their wedding night activities in verse” (Baldridge, 2016). When Marie instead decided to fly in the face of the preordained, pious character laid out before her, and additionally failed to conceive on command, this was seen as near-treasonous in the eyes of religiously conservative and ritual-oriented France.

Herein lies the quandary which this powerful scene helps to elucidate: as phenomenally atypical as Antoinette presented herself, with one of the main accusations against her being “her pretension to conduct her life as she wished and to create a private space for herself” (Revel, 1991), she nevertheless knew “her place” and the total powerlessness of her status. Baldridge discusses this brutal truth; “She ‘blindly’ supported the king not because she did not have personal opinions, but because she wanted the best for him and for France. By being a supportive wife, Marie Antoinette was an example for all women in her century to follow.”

In the operatic scene of Coppola’s film, the “haughty temptress” has been socially reduced to nothing more than a bothersome persona non grata whose deceased child, Antoinette’s very own Castor, renders a sympathetic glance from no-one. In that moment, when Antoinette beings to applaud and no-one joins her, Telaira’s plea to die and Antoinette’s broken and forsaken expression become the same human experience. Two daring women who passionately enjoyed the fruits of life have become devitalized by the very thing they revered most: love. Not just love, but all-consuming and self-sacrificing love. For Telaira, Castor was her reason for being; for Antoinette, her children had become her only priority. They were the reason she even began to control her heretofore frivolous spending.

The usage of Telaira’s lament introduces a bifurcated dialogue about a “woman’s place” in 18th-century French high society and invites a closer inspection of the social implications of musical aesthetics. Rameau is a suitable choice for underpinning this conversation as his flowing, proto-Impressionistic melodies were relatively novel for his time while still adhering to conventional tragédie lyrique. As described by Verba, the Rameauian “dramatic monologue” was the quintessential Enlightenment showcase of “intense expressions of feeling” while under the constraints of rational control, both harmonically and structurally. More importantly, however, was his reformation of the relationship between the serious and the sensual. He ingratiated serious dramatism with sensual instrumentalism and intoned set pieces. In doing so he married the entertainment-based spectacles between the dramatic moments with the dramatic moments themselves. Dramatic music ceased to be only a support to poetics—”the language of intellect” (Bertrand, 1923)—and the long-standing dichotomy of French opera as both “tragic” and a “spectacle” (Garlington Jr., 1963) became something new and unified. Rameau’s heroines, additionally, were given greater room for emotional expression and narrative agency. Gorgeous arias were given to the female singers which both raised their in-character and out-of-plot prestige. By using this aria, Coppola redefines aesthetic beauty as a pernicious obstacle towards self-worth but also a vital tool for demanding public recognition.

Can the Aria Be Political?

An interesting question to try and answer, seeing that this scene signifies the total eradication of Antoinette’s short-lived cachet and alludes to her execution by way of her child’s death, is: can this aria be thought of as political? According to Dr. James Garratt (2019), music gains political agency by “intentionality”—the creator’s political stance—”materiality”—the culturally-given significance of the object in question—and “aesthetic experience”—the connection between the listener and the object.

The aria, by its very nature, was part of Rameau’s “intentional” plan to improve the Ancien Régime’s conservative approach to musical expression. In this regard the answer is yes, the aria was a political statement. But, as Garratt points out, political appropriation can cast another subjective hue, which Coppola does, changing the aria from being a revolution against claims of musical deficiency into a revolution against the social stigma of a woman’s bodily autonomy.

Next, the quality of “materiality”—the aria’s “aliveness”—can be understood by its “intonational genetics.” Its modulatory suaveness, fluid sonority, and tonal consistency all complement its textual grievances, which would have been a monumental change for French audiences. Once again the opera serves as Rameau’s political statement against the regime.

Aesthetically, the political implications come from the aria’s “intra-musical” status. It is not superficially political and instead gains its political appearance from the observer’s reflection on it.

Coppola’s usage of non-verbal narratology is also crucial in a full appreciation of the scene. Antoinette does not speak for the entirety of the scene. One must rely on her body language and facial expressions, musical cues, and scenic developments to properly comprehend the queen’s emotional condition. As Telaira issues her mournful decree, she is seen gazing at nothing in a traumatized thousand-yard stare. The focus is quickly switched to Antoinette, where severe exhaustion from abuse of all kinds is depicted on her face with chilling transparency. She inhales and exhales slowly, her eyes closed, all the while her unchanging, dejected face signifies her defeat and personal desire for death after being so dehumanized by public and private forces alike. Despite all the slander and vilification, once the music concludes, she begins to furiously clap and cheerfully smile, gazing around with the expectation of jubilatory fellowship. But none join her, her radiant grin only met with snickers of contempt, forcing her to fall silent, realizing just how truly far she has fallen. Not a single line has been spoken and yet so much has been said. As Antoinette silently looks around the concert hall searching for even one kind face she, with quivering mouth and lachrymose gaze, tries her best to retain queenly stateliness in the presence of such animosity. By removing speech, Coppola breaks down the viewer/performer dichotomy. The viewer must “decode” the performer’s on-screen intentions without the aid of written meaning.

Unlike normal person-to-person interaction, cinematic dialogue is not a live, mutually-undertaken, process. It is a one-sided performance, open to audience subjectivity. Ambiguous cinematography can engender a myriad of rationales, regardless of the director’s true intentions. Musically, imagine listening to a French aria without an understanding of French. You would respond to the way the song is presented, not what is said directly. Your interpretation is not guaranteed to be accurate, but you would leave the interaction with your own, fully-formed understanding, regardless of its closeness to the creator’s “truth.” When it comes to the one-way, audio/visual artistic disciplines, opera included, this is a huge factor. The way narratives are formed through these mediums rely on an observer combining their prior knowledge, learned from reality, with the knowledge they infer through the fictional scene.

The truth of a non-verbal performance must be imparted on the viewer through bodily expressions. Dr. Lennard Højbjerg(2014) stipulates that on-screen movement as a means of communication is a three-tier form, transitioning from the real, through the exaggerated, to the fictional. These combine to inform the audience of what is occurring in a way that the viewer, without interacting directly with the characters, can comprehend.

Coppola does more than just use the aria for emotional personification. She literally builds the scene around the aria, taking the da-capo form—A, B, A—and adding new aspects, creating a “neo” da-capo structure—introduction, A, bridge, B, A, outro. This is important because it suggests an objectively defined, dramatic evolution external of visual experience, thereby rendering subjectivity ineffective.

On the first tier of Højbjerg’s tripartite approach to on-screen movement, the “real,” actors emote with natural gestures mirroring a natural reaction. In the scene Antoinette’s internal and external emotional states begin as separate—a brave face hiding emotional stress—but quickly conjoin in her stupefied expression as she gazes as her fellow concert-goers. This signals a profound change in her character. A sensitive individual in the world beyond Coppola’s film would have done the same thing had they faced similar treatment. The second category of Højbjerg’s tier-system suggests “extended naturality”: literally exaggeration. Following Antoinette’s torment at the opera, she catatonically walks down a corridor and out into the manicured gardens to grieve. No fanfare follows and no filigree adorns her. For Antoinette this is entirely atypical: her habitually sumptuous demeanor and outfits can no longer conceal her misery. The final tier of the ‘unreal’ is less applicable here and is fairly self-explanatory.

Overall, Coppola utilizes the first two types of non-verbal communication to personify Antoinette’s emotional state, using Remeau’s lyricism to not only give body to Antoinette’s suicidal desires, but to shape her entire cinematic reality. The suggestion of isolation transforms from implied to actualized without a single word. This directly maps onto the tragédie lyrique shift away from speech-dominated dramatics, where music was subservient to text, to an integrative process where each enriched the other. We have arrived at the heart of the matter: Coppola treats the operatic aria as an extension of Antoinette and her unspoken thoughts are personified through the aria. Each aspect forces the observer to re-evaluate how the condemned queen considered herself in the final moments of her reign when her gilded world began to crumble around her. What is created here is a unique, cinematic experience where one can look past the fiction and see the queen for who she really was: an involuntary toy of the patriarchal aristocracy.

The French director Bruno Dumont indicated how powerful sound can be when he said; Sound creates an intimate effect: the sensation to feel the place.  It makes the viewer enter.  You have the liberty to hear what you want.” In film, just like in the traditions of dramatic theatre, music precipitates on-screen meaning for the external and internal, the intoned and concealed. In turn it allows the viewer entry to the nucleus of the character’s personhood. This core of a character is something we all share regardless of status and affluency. Rameau’s ingenuity in marrying harmony, rhythm and timbre with sentimentality based on not the superficial constant of ‘seen’ speech but the instinctual, listener-generated “unseen” expression is proof-enough to acknowledge that an aria is not just a song, but an experiential ticket to another world: a place beyond the rationality of Enlightenment philosophy. For Rameau this meant recreating nature’s laws in divine harmonies—music as an imitation of nature—and elevating the Romantic inclinations towards sumptuous decadence and emotional openness. This expanded awareness was the “essence of a state of consciousness” where the body—or aria—and its functions—music, text and meaning—fell away and what remained was “something that is neither this nor that, but a third” (Morrison, 2019).

Rameau’s inclination towards modernism, exhibited through the pursuit of musical autonomy and agency of expression while also remaining beholden to traditional, structural methods of tragédie lyrique, is one example of the interplay between the genesis of the music and the mindset of Antoinette in this scene. The resistance towards total conformism yet realization of necessary submission gives us Morrison’s third option. What is the space that lies between conforming and submission and how does one lead themselves to that place of disciplined autonomy? Rameau’s thoughts on the role of the musician may answer this question: “a good musician should surrender himself to all the characters he wishes to portray. Like a skillful actor he should take the place of the speaker, believe himself to be at the location where the different events he wishes to depict occur, and participate in these events as do those most involved in them” (Brown, 1980).

Further, the use of rhetorical devices in music played a seminal part in modernizing the speech-dominated dramatism of conventional lyric-theatre, reintroducing back into the compositional process notions of mood-dominated modalities, ornamentation, and even chordal assemblages as arbiters of human states of the soul. Here is Morrison’s third realm again, the place that lies neither in the surreal nor the positive, but rather in the hazy space between intellect and intuition. This is the place where Telaira sings her eulogy and where Antoinette watches and sees herself lamenting upon the stage. The boundaries have fallen and we are left to ponder who Antoinette really was.

Who was Marie Antoinette? She was a naive girl involuntarily thrust into the aristocratic spotlight with little comprehension of what it meant to be a queen, let-alone a public servant and a wife. From her haughty throne, still little-more than Louis XVI’s heavily ornamented footstool, she attempted to satiate detractors by giving them what they wanted while likewise proving herself a capable, self-determined queen who deserved her title just as much as her husband. This very agency would be the very source of her downfall. As Dr. Caroline Weber had stated about Antoinette’s exorbitant tastes; Marie Antoinette used fashion not so much to “be thought cool” as to show her detractors that she was a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased…she was…anxious to cultivate ‘the appearance of credit.” Cast in this light, her disregard for money was not the ignorant behavior of a wanton woman without a goal, but the exact opposite. She was desperately trying to give the people what she thought they wanted, all the while being expected to act well beyond her years; at once both a child and a demure, deferential companion to the king.

I would ask the reader: what would you have done in such a scenario, where rules are poorly formed and yet strictly enforced? Put bluntly, GQ’s Jay Saxena dictates what Antoinette’s expected role was the moment she arrived in Versailles, “To be French, she is immediately taught, isn’t to be subtle…[She] is told it is her job to be beautiful, opulent and fertile. She becomes either too much or not enough of those things The fascinating aspect of the 2006 scene in Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” is that one sees a broken Antoinette: an exhausted Austrian princess called Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna who tried her best to conform but in the end was extinguished, all the while remaining, if-only superficially, alive. She has become Telaira who, upon the realization of her beloved Castor’s death, has fallen prey to the chokehold of despair and the once shining light of day has been transformed into a cruel reminder of what she once had. In Telaira’s case it was love alone. For Antoinette, however, it was a culmination of many things. A loss of freedom, choice, friends, privacy, agency, and time. Her longing for these things is made even more painful by the death of her child, whose stolen life means one less real friend for Antoinette, who once said of her lost daughter “Don’t forget that she would have been my friend” (Fraser, 2001).  Perhaps none of the points raised here came to Coppola’s mind when choosing this doleful aria for this tragic scene, but what can be said is that if art is really the “promise of happiness,” then Rameau has played a cruel trick and Antoinette has been defiled once again.

I believe it is unfair to assume music is subservient to film. Generally, in the operatic realm, libretti are created and then music is composed. This is a rather recursive process, however, where the attributes of both creative organs intertwine and benefit each other. When it comes to film this interplay becomes a bit more complicated, as I presume music is chosen as a soundtrack to on-screen action. The music is therefore forced to play a subservient role, in a way becoming what Rameau tried to rally against. If this tragic scene demonstrates nothing else, it is that music can transfigure one’s worldview without us even realizing it. This is seen in the way Antoinette becomes miserably stoic during Telaira’s performance but yet, although facetiously, overwhelmed with delight at Telaira’s conclusion. This leads her to engage in uncouth applause which, though at the beginning of the film elicited riotous fellowship, engenders nothing but menacing glares of disapproval. While some could argue that the ‘real’ connection the aria has with the scene is purely textual, as Telaira is lamenting the death of her love and so too is Marie, for a film that centers so much of technicolor sensationalism and candy-coated clothing and scenery, I cannot help but feel there is more to the scene than we see on the surface. Even re-watching the clip elicits a “third” sensation, one which is not related to visual reality or premeditated contrivances. A heaviness pervades over everything and it becomes difficult to listen, let alone watch such a gentle soul die before her time. Whatever you may think of Marie Antoinette, “eat the rich” or not, it is undeniable that both Telaira and Antoinette were victims of greed, one from the crimes of war and the other from the crimes of power.

“I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long.”


Opera Meets Film