October 20th, 2006
Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" is a bit of a heartbreaker. There's no argument from me that the film is gorgeously detailed, with the production setting the perfect mood of Versailles and the era. However, Coppola doesn't go far enough with her bigger artistic leaps, and this film could use all the creative juice it can find.
After having two virtually perfect motion pictures under her belt (“The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation”), it seemed certain that one day writer/director Sofia Coppola would find material that didn’t bring out the best in her. “Marie Antoinette” isn’t that film, but it’s close enough to make you feel both triumphant and queasy while watching it.
History buffs would be best advised to not go anywhere in the vicinity of this film, for this very unorthodox telling of Antoinette’s (Kirsten Dunst) years at Versailles is so light in historical perspective it almost floats to the ceiling.
“Antoinette” is separated into three sections: the first is the marriage of the teenaged Austrian Antoinette to the prince (and future king) Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), and her induction into the French way of life at the palatial grounds of Versailles. For this 40-minute act, Coppola plays the story perfectly straight, pursuing the overwhelming feelings of isolation and confusion the young princess felt as she was ripped from her life and thrown into a sexless and socially icy marriage to help ease tensions in Europe.
The second act is where things loosen up considerably. Now at peace with the attention and groveling she receives in her daily life, Antoinette begins to enjoy herself, and takes full advantage of the money and privilege being a queen affords her. Attending party after party, getting drunk on champagne, eating to her heart’s content, and becoming a full time player in the wicked gossip games of the kingdom, Antoinette combats her loneliness and the demands of her family with her descent into gluttony, and the film receives something akin to a sugar rush of creativity.
In a very Coppolaesque move, the director introduces the sounds of 80s New Wave into the film, using hits by Bow Wow Wow, New Order, The Cure, and Adam Ant to spice up the nightlife of a heavily rouged teen party queen. This stroke of genius is the antidote to the intentionally meandering quality of the screenplay; it’s like a burst of lightning, and adds needed clarity and pop-fizz to the movie. It’s to Coppola’s credit that it doesn’t come off as the silliest idea in the history of the universe. The music is truthful to Antoinette’s decadent surroundings and inner-monologue, while also adding a needed audience participatory dimension to the austere playgrounds of the era.
But there’s simply not enough of it. Unfortunately, Coppola doesn’t have the guts to use this style of music in a wall-to-wall fashion during the picture, and only whips it out sporadically to suit a specific mood. Perhaps if the filmmaker would’ve gone to town turning Antoinette’s story into a 1982 paneled-basement dance party, the creative juice would've extended to the rest of the tale. While “Antoinette” is gushing with insane period minutiae and is wallpapered with sweets of all shapes, sizes, and colors, the material is lacking that important sensation of life rushing through its veins.
For the final section of the story, Antoinette is trapped in her glacial existence, takes a lover, and is soon facing down a furious French nation who will settle for nothing less than her death. While powdered and aimless to start with, Coppola tries to sober up her movie quickly here, uncovering the pain of Antoinette as she came to her senses and started to mature into a proper, but still spoiled, queen.
It’s evident that Coppola is going for a completely surface experience to her Antoinette tale, and that’s just fine. This picture is gorgeous six ways to Sunday, and the sugared effort of the production can be eye-opening at times. Appreciating Coppola’s vision is another story. The film ends not with a beheading, but with a good bye, and invites a very important question: is that all there is to Marie? To Sofia Coppola, I guess the answer is yes.
My rating: C+