Opera Meets Film: How Sofia Coppola Explores The Destruction Of An Artist Through Rameau’s Operas in ‘Marie Antoinette’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.”

As showcased by director Sofia Coppola, Marie Antoinette, the tragically fated Queen of France, was a performer on the great stage of the French monarchy. From her arrival at the French-Austrian border, where she was treated much like a person arriving at the theater, she has to go through security and checked into the venue, often having to dispose of items not permitted. The entirety of her routine and its ceremonious aspects (such as how she is dressed in the mornings) is repeatedly portrayed with the same baroque music accompanying the display. She is an actor in a big drama. Her role has already been written for her (and performed by many women before) and it is on her to fulfill its interpretation in the best way possible.

Her main objective as a character in the drama is made very clear to her early on: She has to bear an heir to the throne and the lack of fulfilling this duty could be calamitous to her and everyone else’s fate. Much of the film’s first half is dedicated to this “crisis” for Marie Antoinette as she constantly finds herself pressured about her situation with the Dauphin / King Louis XI. Even when its not her fault, she is judged on how she is performing this role, almost like an actor’s relationship with the public and the critics.

Initial Love

To emphasize this meta-narrative within the story, Coppola places Marie Antoinette in the theater on three separate occasions, all of them at the opera.

Jean-Philippe Rameau was a noted composer in France at that time, so it is fitting that three opera excerpts place a spotlight on him. The first piece that we hear comes early in Marie Antoinette’s tenure. The piece we hear is the joyous “Aux langueurs d’Apollon, Daphné se refusa,” from Rameau’s “Platée.” The music’s bright tone undeniably underlines the satirical tone throughout the film’s opening sequences. When the piece comes to an end at the opera, Marie Antoinette starts to applaud, which she is told is not customary in a court performance. But when she decides to show her appreciation for the artists, suddenly the entire theater bursts out in ovation as well. More importantly however is that as staged by Coppola, they are looking at her and the viewer gets the sense that the people are applauding Marie Antoinette on her performance as the Dauphine so far. They approve of her and chalk up her failings in her role to inexperience.

What is fascinating about this piece is that “Platée” was seen as a potential controversy. It premiered on the occasion of the wedding between Louis and Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain. Given its theme of a hideous nymph forcing Jupiter to marry her, many thought that the work’s text would serve as an insulting subtext to the union. But the work turned into a raucous success. Per Harper’s Scott Horton, “The work is perhaps the greatest operatic success of the first half of the 18th century. Rameau is hailed as a genius, and the audience finds the work hysterically funny.” Most importantly – the aria is sung by Folly, a soprano and expresses Marie Antoinette’s own emotions outwardly. While no one sees it clearly, the opera and choice of aria in this film not only take a veiled shot at the whims of the French court, but its ultimate superficiality in its relationship to Marie Antoinette.

Growth & Increased Criticism

Later on, when she has fully taken to her role as the Queen, it is Marie Antoinette that we see onstage. Marie Antoinette was a lover of the dramatic arts and herself engaged in performances as well. She famously put on comedies with her friends on a whim. And so it is that the film itself showcases her onstage. The reactions are quite positive with King Louis XVI the most enraptured by her performance. Marie Antoinette is at the height of her popularity and fully embracing her role. However, watching this scene, one does feel it rather strange that the Queen herself is exposing herself onstage in a manner that many of that society would likely have frowned upon. This scene emphasizes Marie Antoinette’s risk-taking in a bold and excessive manner.

Finally, Coppola takes us back to the opera near the end of the film when Marie Antoinette’s popularity has waned and she has been seen as bankrupting the crown. The piece on offer is “Castor et Pollux,” a tragedy. The aria on offer here is “Tristes Apprêts, Pâles Flambeaux,” which is sung by Telaire as she despairs the death of her beloved Castor. Like the aria Folly, this aria is a manifestation of Marie Antoinette’s own tragic nature at this point in the film. When she applauds at the conclusion of the passage, no one else does. But Coppola makes it clear that all eyes are on her, everyone disapproving of HER performance as the Queen of France.

While people lauded her during her time as Dauphine, her reign saw Marie Antoinette increasingly destroyed by criticism. In the context of her film, Coppola is able to explore not only the journey of a monarch, but that of an artist doing his or her best to navigate the world of theater. People are always enthusiastic about new artists when they come onstage for the first time and are quick to forgive mistakes readily. The perceived potential for said artist is what often sways any negative opinions, with people willing to wait and see what this young artist might have to offer in the future. But as said artist grows in prominence, two things happen. He or she grows tremendously, creating expectations that will eventually be unmanageable and unfair. Or conversely, the artist’s limitations become clearer to the public and the perceived adoration for his or her potential fades, replaced instead by increased criticism aimed at those limitation. And it is at this point that people start to pick them apart more and more, potentially destroying them altogether. This is the journey of Marie Antoinette in Coppola’s film.


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