Writer/director Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” was infamously booed at the Cannes Film Festival (this is the same festival that gave an eight-minute standing ovation to “Clerks 2”), but the film, in its own way, is something to cheer.
The blurb on the DVD describes the title character as history’s favorite villainess, but Coppola sees her as a tragic figure. The film fits nicely along side Coppola’s previous work “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” films about lonely girls who feel trapped. Marie Antoinette may have led a pampered life, but the halls of Versailles were isolating ones.
Marie Antoinette (Kristen Dunst, “Spiderman”) was married off to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman (“Shopgirl,” “Rushmore”) at 15 as an attempt to build an alliance between France and Austria. At 19 when King Louis XV (Rip Torn, “Men in Black,” “Dodgeball”) died she became the Queen of France.
Much of the first part of the film focuses on Marie’s culture clash. Initially, she is taken aback by the lavish life, numerous servants and rules of court. This is best portrayed in an amusingly awkward scene in which Marie is left standing nude as she learns the long process of her dressing from Comtesse de Noailles (the excellent Judy Davis).
Versailles is portrayed like an aristocratic form of high school. Gossip about Marie’s inability to consummate her marriage is constantly on the lips of members of court, which include “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson (Moaning Mertle in the “Harry Potter” series).
Marie gets no support from her mother Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithful), who blames Louis’ lack of interest solely on Marie and constantly pressures her to consummate the marriage or the union of France and Austria will crumble. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a teenage girl in a foreign country. Dunst takes it all with a quiet dignity that makes the scene when she finally does breakdown all the more effective.
Dunst during these scenes does a nice job portraying the loneliness and naïveté of a girl living in unfamiliar surroundings with a man who is indifferent towards her. During these early scenes Dunst barely speaks and instead relies on silent stares, one of Coppola’s trademarks. There’s a wonderful shot in which Dunst stands alone on a balcony as the camera tracks back. It beautifully captures the isolation of Versailles.
Schwartzman’s Louis is a hilarious characterization. He plays him as completely aloof. Coppola crafts several amusing scenes at the dinner table and in the bed that Schwartzman plays to perfection. Louis’ only hobby is keys and locks. His reaction to a book he is reading about wooden locks is priceless.
The film shifts gears when Marie simply accepts her new life and embraces the overindulgence of her new existence. She parties long and hard and this is when we see the bubblier Dunst that we know and love (or hate as the case may be).
“Marie Antoinette” takes the “Amadeus” approach of using modern English instead of period dialogue or native tongue. For historical purists this may be unacceptable, but it is less controversial than the film’s soundtrack, which like “A Knight’s Tale” uses rock music throughout the film.
For some, the use of new wave and post-punk music will be completely intolerable, especially a montage of clothing and food set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” Yet, once you accept it for what it is, it works well at capturing a certain mood and atmosphere.
The “I Want Candy” montage is something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a teen movie, but that is the point. Marie was a teen girl thrust into a position beyond her years. She did what anyone at her age would do: she partied. But the first half of the film does a good job of showing her as more than just the Paris Hilton of her time.
Most of the songs that appear in the film are from the eighties, a time known for excess. The pop songs on the soundtrack are paired with a sparse score and compliment each other nicely. Together the help give the film a unique feel.
The film looks great. Coppola shot on location in Versailles, which she captures in long, well-composed shots. The hair, make-up and Oscar-winning costumes are all excellent.
Those hoping for a detailed look at the time will be disappointed. The film rarely leaves Versailles and there is little sense of a timeline. The film centers mostly on Marie’s early years at Versailles, but does span Louis XVI’s entire rule.
Louis and Marie were cut off and living in their own world. Coppola’s approach is to leave the audience just as cut off from the historical context in which the film takes place. This may make the film seem frivolous and shallow, but the film’s intent is more about capturing a feeling than chronicling the tumultuous history of the time.
Most of film is light and funny, but since we all know what is coming there’s an underlining dread. The mood switches quickly as the film approaches its abrupt ending. Coppola chooses to leave the French Revolution off-camera. Instead of showing Louis and Marie gruesome demise Coppola comes up with a poetic final shot that is deeply affecting and poignant.