Columbia Pictures

How Marie Antoinette’s Soundtrack Became A Classic

Ten years later, the music from Sofia Coppola’s misunderstood film sounds better than ever

“I’m not a fetishist about historical accuracy,” Sofia Coppola told the New York Times in an interview about her 2006 film Marie Antoinette. “I’m just, like, making it my thing.”

Many critics at the time saw this stance as detrimental to telling the story of Marie Antoinette. The director’s third feature film took great liberties with the story of the 14-year-old Austrian girl turned deposed queen of France, sympathetically painting Marie Antoinette as a rambunctious teenager shielded from the harsh realities of France in the 18th century. Actors spoke in contemporary English, Coppola’s focus stayed far more on lavish parties than the revolution outside, and Kirsten Dunst in the title role flirted freely with cute boys and wore Converse sneakers.

“Her lunges at historical gravity seem insulting and uncourageous,” wrote The New Yorker. “It’s history written with truffles,” said The A.V. Club. “She doesn’t seem to realize that what made this spoiled, rotten woman worthy of attention weren’t her garden parties and fur-lined shoes, but the role she played in a bloody historical convulsion,” Manohla Dargis declared in the Times. There were boos when the film premiered at Cannes. But once viewers got past the fact that Marie Antoinette was not, and was never really supposed to be, a detailed historical depiction of the queen, the intentions of the movie were clear: This was a film about a teenage girl. Specifically, a teenage girl who listened to Adam and the Ants and New Order.

It’s been ten years since the two-disc soundtrack for Marie Antoinette came out, and ever since, it’s reigned as one of Coppola’s best works of music on film. The movie, which is minimalist when it comes to dialogue (as is Coppola’s style), found a saving grace in its soundtrack, which effectively turned the film into a gorgeous, 127-minute music video. Even more than 2003’s Lost in Translation or 2010’s Somewhere, Marie Antoinette used its soundtrack to create an entirely new narrative level for its story, complicating its pristine universe with a bubbling undercurrent of punk attitude. Coppola paired the pretty, pale luxury of Versailles with the sound of new wave acts like Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees alongside quiet, contemporary electronic acts like Squarepusher and The Radio Dept.

When Antonia Fraser — author of Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the best-selling 2001 biography that Coppola used as source material — first became privy to the writing and production process of the film, she wasn’t so sure about the music. “Even odder is [the sound designer’s] reference to rock ‘n’ roll when I ask him about the music,” she wrote in her published journal about the film. “I had expected him to say Gluck, Mozart, that sort of thing — the music to which I used to research and write the book. He obviously can’t literally mean rock ‘n’ roll. I expect the phrase has another meaning, which I am not cool enough to know.”

But he did mean rock and roll, and the rock and roll works. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how Coppola’s soundtrack helped Marie Antoinette. She was intent on humanizing the queen, and the soundtrack vividly communicated the idea of her as a teen girl flirting and partying and moping around gardens. Marie Antoinette’s soundtrack made sense in other ways, too: The New Romantic flair of Adam and the Ants, who positioned themselves as embattled revolutionaries from the 18th century (artfully distressed military uniforms and all), became literal as the claustrophobic backdrop of the French Revolution. Atmospheric pop from The Radio Dept. and New Order found parallels in the film’s Vivaldi-driven, baroque score. As the country topples around the movie’s heroine, saddled with blame for her lavish spending, Julian Casablancas singing out, “I want to be forgotten, and I don’t want to be reminded,” actually felt profound.

In the early 1980s, 13-year-old Annabella Lwin was cast by impresario Malcolm McLaren as the singer of Bow Wow Wow, only to be ousted later when her band decided they wanted to form their own group without her. Her spirit, as the thrashing, controversial teenage frontwoman of a band who was creeping into mainstream music, was an inspiration for how Coppola wanted to portray her Marie Antoinette. “What’s a girl to do? I was 17 and had a mortgage to pay. And I was engaged,” Lwin told The Guardian in 2012 about being tossed aside and later embarking on a solo career. “But life throws these curveballs at you, and you have to either lie down and take it — or get up and shake it.” For the sound of Marie Antoinette — her inner monologues, her intense parties, her fears — Coppola rightfully chose a soundtrack that could get up and shake it.