The Anachronist’s Cookbook: Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette

It seemed an unlikely pairing this weekend, when I watched both Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette, but I found the juxtaposition of these two films especially fitting. While both maintain a connection to an historical past, they both engage in felicitous and creative use of anachronism to create a further commentary on their source texts.

Superstar is a passion play detailing the last weeks in the life of Christ and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version features hippies, heavy artillery, pipe scaffolds, and even picture postcards in the temple. The film opens with a bus full of hippies arriving in Israel, unloading their props and costumes, and then beginning to act out the rock opera from there.

The musical itself is a fairly modern critique of celebrity and American culture, laid over the familiar story of the events that led to the martyrdom of Christ. “What’s the buzz? / Tell me what’s a-happenin,” one song chants over and over, while another connective piece features reporter-like characters sticking their fists in Christ’s face, as if holding a microphone, while they ask a series of invasive questions. Even the lepers, wrapped in black bandages as they crawl over the rocks and beg for Christ’s healing, bear a strange resemblance to starfuckers and autograph seekers you see on, say, That particular number concludes with Christ sinking deeply into a sea of lepers, who pull him down into their circle. It resonated oddly with footage I saw on Best Week Ever this week of the paparazzi swarming Britney Spears’s car—in traffic—ambushing her.

Antoinette is anachronistic, too, but mostly in a non-diegetic way. Coppola takes her straightforward filming of the ill-fated queen’s rise to the throne and puts down modern rock tracks. While the music is obvious, it does not detract from the film, but draws attention to Antoinette’s youth and rebellious nature (as portrayed in the film). By linking Antoinette to the modern culture of youth while showing her engaging in the decadent partying, drinking, gambling, and seduction that were her ultimate downfall, Coppola locates a renewed humanity in her story, a way we can understand her—and her failings.

Dunst’s Antoinette is capricious, barely able to keep her mouth shut, and she speaks not in the stuttered tones that affect the French around her, but in a nonchalant and flowing tone that bespeaks her confidence. Contrast her to Judy Davis’s Countess, who can barely wrap her teeth around her carefully enunciated lines and you see the difference. Dunst’s line delivery is also playful and sort of seductive in and of itself. It’s an interesting performance for a costume drama to say the least. A breath of fresh air, if you ask me.

Superstar is one of my favorite musical dramas. I’m not sure why. I do enjoy the anachronism present, but I also think the staging and choreography are brilliant, and Judas turns in a star-making performance here, particularly in the final number that solidifies the show’s primary themes:

“Could Muhammad move a mountain
or was that just PR now?
Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake,
or did you know your messy death
would be a record breaker?”

It’s also fun to watch this song evolve while Judas wears a bright white bellbottomed jumpsuit with arm-to-floor fringe, backed up by Solid Gold-style dancers.

Antoinette, on the other hand, is an intensely internal film. Coppola tries to invite us not only into the decadant world of her heroine, but into her psyche as well. Echoing the imagery of her version of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola shows us Antoinette’s disembodied hand gliding over the tall grasses of the fields beyond Versailles, Antoinette lounging in the grass, filled with ennui and disillusionment. The conceit, for me, was effective and moving; a departure from the stereotypcial portrayals we historically see.

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