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NYFF: Marie Antoinette

October 14th, 2006 (03:00 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

Marie Antoinette
Dir: Sofia Coppola


From Sony Pictures


Like, what if Marie Antoinette was just a regular gurl, circa 1769? And, like Cyndi Lauper would say, girls just wanna have fun? If you can visualize that, you've got a head start on the concept behind Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.

I shouldn't be quite that flippant about Coppola's take on Louis XVI's queen; the story looks relatively faithful to Antonia Fraser's book Marie Antoinette: The Journey, following the ill-fated queen from her departure from Austria to her departure from Versailles, nineteen years later. The young Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen may or may not have been an airhead, but she arrived in France much more comfortable with adjusting to the situation by enjoying life than by learning statecraft at the French court. To represent the vacuous, out-of-touch life that such a royal might lead, director Coppola weaves in abundant doses of the kind of materialistic hedonism that would be at home today: lots of fashion, lots of food, lots of hairstyles, lots of shoes - even a glimpse of Converse hightops, strategically placed to blend into the story. This is topped by hits from the early 1980s by the likes of Bow Wow Wow, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Gang of Four, Adam Ant - one ball scene is a swirl of colors as dancers pirouette to "Hong Kong Garden" - leaving a riot of color and sound to push back depression with champagne, bon bons, and constant parties. Life is just fun...

...except it's not. Maria has problems adjusting to the much more formal French court, while half the time she could care less about its traditions (making her some enemies). More importantly, the royal couple isn't conceiving - which, no matter what the actual cause, will eventually be blamed on Marie. Plus the king's grandfather, Louis XV, dies much sooner than expected, pushing the dauphin and dauphine onto a throne that they're not ready for - and they're well aware they're not ready.

Kirsten Dunst carried about 80% of the film as Marie. As much as I've enjoyed her past performances, I wasn't sure she could pull this one off. Happily, she does Marie from 14 to 33 quite well. The visual isn't completely perfect; she comes across as an old 14 year old and a youngish 33. Her strengths were more in the portrayal that Coppola wanted, showing a fish out of water who, by being true to herself, carves out some self definition. And she eased into hedonism just as effortlessly as slipping on one of those satin slippers.

I actually admire what Coppola's done, and I think the conceit is brilliant. The more I think about the movie, however, the more blemishes I see. The problem is with the omissions. Emphasizing Marie's life over that of the country, and disconnecting her from the issues which would come to a head with the French Revolution, is a choice - although a bit uninteresting. Marie Antoinette is a fascinating historical character. Why divorce her that completely from the events that have defined her place in history? Depicting the ennui of the court is important, but the Affair of the Necklace was pivotal (and reached into the court, not outside). And Marie's sour relationship with Madame du Barry was also key, yet here it's boiled down to a slight snub which is soon fixed. There's nothing there but lots of ennui and decadence, shifting to a washed-out semi-domesticity in her little mini-village (or as much domesticity as a queen can have) once she has children.

It may be that Coppola is exploring one of her common themes (teen girl unappreciated by and alienated from her environment) in Marie Antoinette, to produce a story about what it felt like to be her. Not a problem there, it's something that could raise some very interesting questions - but not the way Coppola has done it. Marie at 14 wasn't Marie in her 30s - even in this version - and Coppola doesn't provide enough of a transition to develop that shift. She also could have ended the story earlier, or used a Marie Antoinette-ish character.

Don't get me wrong - visually this is wonderful, especially in the early parts. But it could have, and should have, been so much more.

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Something interesting but a little off-topic: a memoir by one of Marie Antoinette's ladies-in-waiting, from Project Guttenberg.