Film Review: Marie Antoinette
Premiering Marie Antoinette in Cannes was asking for trouble. Like bringing coals to Newcastle, ice to the Inuit - or French pastries to Paris. Sofia Coppola, a young American director, had painted a revisionist portrait of France's most infamous royal icon - Kirsten Dunst plays the profligate queen as a girl who just wants to have fun, and whose fabulous party is cruelly cut short, along with her head, by a brutally insensitive French Revolution. Predictably, there were some boos when the film was launched in Cannes last May. Some critics were irked by its political naïveté, and others dismissed it as a frou-frou confection. Which it is. Marie Antoinette is the ultimate shopping movie. It plays like Sex and the City in Versailles, without the sex. But in a world of film (and film criticism) that is so male-dominated, this champagne cocktail of girlish delirium comes as a tonic.
Movies about renegade women tend to fit into tidy genres, from so-called "chick flicks" (In Her Shoes) to heroic dramas of saints and martyrs (Million Dollar Baby). And most are made by men. As a young female director who's arrived on Hollywood's A-list, Coppola is in a league of her own, and she brings a uniquely feminine sensibility to the screen.
The three features that Coppola has written and directed - The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003), and Marie Antoinette - are all about young women who rebel against a suffocating environment. Coppola herself is a rebel against Hollywood convention. For her, plot seems less important than character, which is less important than mood. Lost In Translation had the intimacy of a jet-lagged daydream. Marie Antoinette is a period film infused with an ultra-modern impressionism. Usually, costume drama uses decor to package historical substance. Here the eye candy is the substance (in the same way that fashion can be art), while the history serves as window dressing - a revolution raging somewhere beyond the balcony.
Holding court in Cannes, on a sun-washed terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, Coppola explained that she wanted to keep her characters "in this bubble, because none of them realized what was going on outside their world. What struck me was how young they were." Marie Antoinette was 14 when she was whisked from Vienna to Versailles to marry the 15-year-old dauphin Louis, who takes seven years to consummate their marriage - he's portrayed by Coppola's cousin Jason Schwartzman as a shy, almost catatonic nerd.
As the daughter of Francis Coppola, Sofia has grown up in her own bubble of Hollywood royalty, and speaks with a mumbled air of noblesse oblige, as if the words are barely worth the effort. On the set, she's famous for never raising her voice. "She's so calming and tranquil," says Schwartzman. "I think she has her own atmosphere, her own ozone layer. She commands the set almost with a whisper, which travels quite loudly in Versailles."
Coppola's crew was granted extraordinary access to Versailles. But the movie shimmies between period splendour and cheeky anachronism. In macaroon pastels of pink, citrus and pistachio, the costumes look as fresh as a Vogue fashion spread. Manolo Blahnik designed the shoes. Dunst and Schwartzman talk like young Californians. And the soundtrack flits between 18th-century baroque and bouncy '80s pop by New Romantic bands such as Bow Wow Wow. Their song I Want Candy pretty well sums up the film, in which paper-thin characters are upstaged by fashion. Call it auteur couture.
As the tale of a poor little rich girl martyred by her own celebrity, Marie Antoinette sounds a clear contemporary chord. Her famous line, "Let them eat cake," is framed as a misquote of early tabloid journalism: "That's such nonsense," says Marie Antoinette. "I would never say that." And Dunst has compared her character to Princess Diana. In fact, Coppola's movie would make a rich double bill with Stephen Frears's The Queen. In Frears's film, Helen Mirren delivers a deeply nuanced portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as a stoic repelled by the excess of Diana's celebrity; she derives power from denial. Coppola's queen incarnates excess; her royal privilege is to get lost in the superficial pleasure of the moment. And that's exactly what Marie Antoinette offers its audience.
Maclean's October 23, 2006