Marie Antoinette: “I Want Candy”—Pastry Porn, Shoes, and Macaron

by Erin Eisele

One of the most recognizable and symbolic phrases ever attributed to royalty could be Queen Marie Antoinette’s infamous quote, “Let them eat cake.” Although there is no historical record of these words having ever been uttered by the Queen, the quotation is claimed to have been voiced in response to the widespread famine under the reign of her husband, King Louis XVI. Bread, a staple for the peasant population, was scarce at this time in France due to a countrywide grain shortage, among other injustices. As the popular story goes, when alerted that the peasants had no bread, Marie Antoinette replied, “”Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” This translates into “Let them eat cake,” as “brioche” is a bread made with eggs and butter. During famine, finding any food, let alone eggs and butter to make brioche, is an outlandish notion. “Let them eat cake,” whether truly spoken or not, serves to demonstrate the obliviousness and ignorance of the French monarchy to the peoples’ plight during that time. Marie Antoinette, in particular, became a symbol for the excess and overconsumption of the nobility while the poor suffered under the monarchy’s regime.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the wanton extravagance of the 18th century monarchy splashes across the big screen in Sofia Coppola’s loose adaptation of Marie Antoinette’s life in her 2006 film, “Marie Antoinette.” Coppola’s Hollywood treatment of the French Revolution is more about style than substance, with lavish French pastries featuring prominently on the Versailles set. Marie Antoinette unabashedly pops beautifully made bon bons while she spends thriftlessly on haute couture gowns, shoes, and jewels. These pastries are the picture of sweet perfection, and are enjoyed immensely by Marie Antoinette while people go hungry outside of the gates of Versailles.

The language Coppola chooses to tell the story of the rise and fall of the notorious teenage bride is akin to a music-video style format. With this audiovisual design, Coppola captures the fantastic corruption and excess of the French nobility of that time with a modern approach. Antoinette’s outrageous sense of style, rebelliousness, promiscuity, and couture sweet tooth are presented larger-than-life for the viewing audience to indulge in. Food, boutique pastry creations in particular, feature in the film as metaphors for sexuality, extravagance, and materiality. Coppola uses the colorful, lavish creations from the famous French luxury cakes and pastries brand Ladureè. While tickling the fancy of viewers, these pastries make a statement on the privileged life of Antoinette and the French nobility, as well as the excess of contemporary Western society and material culture.

One of the film’s key scenes with the use of food is the “I Want Candy” clip. Set inside the Queen’s extravagant dressing room in Versailles, Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting prepare for a grande fête for later that evening, picking garments, trying on jewels, getting their hair done, playing cards, and eating sweets. Accompanied by a re-make of the popular song “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow, the scene acts as an entertaining yet voyeuristic pause in the narrative of the film. Opening with the recognizable “Bo Diddley” drumbeat and guitar riff of “I Want Candy,” the camera sweeps across a line-up of designer high-heels, one pair after the other of jewel-toned and outrageously embellished shoes. Next, beautiful hand-embroidered fans and gorgeous fabrics tantalize the ladies, as they sit tapping their heels to the rhythmic beat of “I Want Candy.” Antoinette is flanked by her “girls,” and while checking out the merchandise and eating a bon-bon she exclaims about the merchandise, “Oh, it’s like candy!” Cue the pastry porn. A close-up of a Laudre confection echoing the same designer attention to detail as the shoes, fans, and clothing appears on the screen. To the beat of the music, champagne pops open and spills over the tops of flutes, as the girls swig and nosh, giggling amongst themselves while playing cards. The scene culminates with Antoinette’s hair-do for the party, a ridiculous up-do that is as tall as her husband King Louis XVI, with ringlets, curls, ribbons and bows symbolizing the apparent excess of the Queen who seems not to notice the plight of her subjects outside the gates of Versailles. “It’s not too much, is it?” she asks her fabulous hairdresser.

Coppola uses modern music video filming techniques in this “I Want Candy” clip, such as rhythmic cross-cutting, contrasting long shots and close-ups, and unusual shots and camera angles. This language, accompanied by the song, immediately signifies to the viewer that this sequence is akin to a promotional piece to sell the decadent goods (the pastries, shoes, jewels, the lifestyle of the rich and famous) to the characters as well as the audience. Layers of pastel and jewel tone colors, varying textures, patterns, lighting, and sound construct the richness and decadence in this scene. The sweeping shots give the impression of a hand-held camera, used often in music videos, and this motion continues to build and create excitement throughout the scene with Coppola’s use of accelerated montage. Shoes and pastries flash across the screen in quick succession, in time to the rhythm of the music. These shots are reminiscent of the pages of a Vogue magazine, or a Playboy, except shoes and cakes are titillating the audience, not women. Women are the main consumers of the goods in this scene, which is a shift in power and gender role reversal. In fact, the men in this scene are homosexual. Antoinette’s hairdresser marches in fuchsia shoes to the “I Want Candy” beat, coming to do the Queen’s hair. He is her trusted confidant to take charge of the important duty of her hair, and she air kisses him with gratitude after he’s finished.

The Ladureè pastries enter this clip center stage with a provocative close-up early on. The camera shoots still from above, down onto an over-embellished, lavishly decorated, perfectly arranged pastry atop a fine china plate surrounded by pastel almonds, golden accents, and fresh flower petals. Pastries are given grand attention throughout the scene, in almost every shot as a close-up or part of the interspersed action shots. The scene closes with an anonymous lady-in-waiting biting into a hard-shelled cake with reckless abandon, then finally a close-up of a pastry dish with open-sliced strawberries and powder sugar-dusted ladyfingers flanking a pink mound of mousse topped with a raspberry.

The “food” looks more like the shoes, jewels, fans, and fabric than anything edible. Close-up pornographic pastry shots are interspersed with action shots of Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting devouring the sweets. Other erotic shots and sounds include erect champagne bottles, moans of gastronomic pleasure, “cum shots” with remnants of cream on a cheek, and overflowing bubbly. Short action-shot clips are placed in between the long-and-short still shots of the “merchandise.” Champagne, which Antoinette is reputed to have a special affinity for, flows endlessly and the women drink with reckless abandon while they play cards and try on jeweled necklaces, which could be seen as foreshadowing to the “Diamond Necklace” scandal that eventually brings the Queen to her demise and unofficially signaled the start of the French Revolution.

The choice of songs is clear—Antoinette wants “candy.” The denotation of “candy” is a sweet treat usually consumed and desired by children. In pop culture, the word “candy” the connotation of “candy” is something to satisfy one’s desire, not need.  Whether the desire is food, booze, sex, fashion, the word is generally used to express gluttony of some sort. For Antoinette, “candy” is shoes, “candy” is clothing, jewelry, fans, fabrics, champagne, big hair, and haute macaroons from a famous French bakery. Antoinette wants all of the candy. Coppola uses the pop song and its cultural connotation of “candy” to communicate ideas about Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting, as well as the larger problems of the French monarchy leading up to the Revolution of 1789. Yet the cultural connotations of “candy” can also be applied to Western pop culture and the modern-day obsession with food as fashion. The “candy”/”cake” that Antoinette actually consumes is fetishized and elevated to the status of the haute couture shoes.

In the terminology of semiotics, as extensively studied and discussed by Roland Barthes, the sign in this clip is the “candy,” communicated through the medium of music video filmmaking technique, and the signifier is the wanton extravagance of the French monarchy under King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette’s reign. The popular symbolic message attributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake” is embodied in this scene, with Ladurée confections an obvious metaphor to the sugary-sweet life of privilege of the Queen. But Coppola uses a medium that also signifies the obsession our contemporary culture has with gastronomy.

The material culture of Western society is emblazoned in the subtext of this film. Food becomes a part of this material culture in Coppola’s adaptation of the life of Marie Antoinette. The budget for the film is apparent in the beautiful set, costume, and food design. Food plays a major role in this film, certainly at banquets and parties, but also in Antoinette’s more intimate moments of solitude. While lying in a room, having her toes painted, Marie Antoinette is surrounded by lavish cakes that that rise around her like totems. Her expression is listless and bored, and the cakes do nothing to delight her. They are plastic. Antoinette, dressed in her extravagant garb, looks very much like a confection herself. The lines of materiality are blurred, as in the “I Want Candy” scene of cake and shoes, and reflect a discourse of materiality and consumption in contemporary culture and society. Marie Antoinette could be Paris Hilton, or another real or invented socialite, heading to the Upper East Side to grab a dozen cinnamon-raisin macaron from the Maison de Ladurée. Coppola capitalizes on the fantasy and spectacle of modern-day socialites to tell the story of Marie Antoinette.

Furthermore, the 149-year old haute house of macarons, Ladureè is an interesting choice for the desserts featured in the film. Right away, there is distinction in this choice, distinction because Ladureè caters to a middle-upper social class in France and in the US. The average viewer has not or will not ever eat a macaron from Ladurée, in fact they may even confuse macaron with the coconut and evaporated milk “macaroon.” But viewers can experience the thrill of pastry porn and the nobility who consume them by watching this film. Similarly, in contemporary culture, many viewers who watch cooking shows never actually make the recipes featured on a particular show, which is a curious phenomenon.

“Marie Antoinette” can without a doubt be considered as representative of pop culture because of its music video film techniques, spectacle, fantasy, eroticism, and play on the current culture’s obsession with food as fashion and fashion as food.   “Marie Antoinette” is also an especially enticing act of voyeurism because no one alive has seen or experienced life at Versailles, and this representation taps into the recesses of the imagination with stunning eye candy. The plight of the people is secondary to the music video treatment of the French Revolution and the haute couture style of the people of Versailles, mainly the scandalous beauty, Marie Antoinette. With political disregard and/or ignorance for the disadvantaged classes of society around the world, perhaps the 21st century version of the infamous phrase, “Let them eat cake,” would be “Let them eat macaron.”

Erin Eisele is a budding gastronome studying food culture and communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in northern Italy. She’ll graduate with a Masters degree in November, 2012.

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