Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is not a costume drama biopic. While it’s based on sometime historian Antonia Fraser’s revisionist biography,Marie Antoinette: The Journey, this film is more about shoes and cakes and celebrity than it is about the period preceding the French Revolution. And that’s not necessarily an insult. Coppola’s film very consciously creates a series of images so sensual, gorgeous and outrageously over-the-top, that questions about what happened where and when are superceded by a far different one: how the hell can anyone live in such a world and maintain any sense of perspective?
Marie Antoinette (played here by Kirsten Dunst) knew little of the plight of her people. She was a teenager when she arrived in France to a coy and confused teenage husband (Jason Schwartzman). She woke and went to sleep in front of an assembled crowd, all of whom were desperate to know when her marriage would be consummated. When stressed, Antoinette engaged in her own orgiastic version of retail therapy; when she turned 21, she threw a gambling party that made Las Vegas look like a mormon ghost town. And when she finally outgrew such material fetishization, the queen sought a Rousseauian idyll that outraged even further the sans-culottes in the streets of Paris. She just didn’t get it. But how could she? Ultimately, that’s Coppola’s point. If it’s not, then I don’t have a clue what she’s up to.
As she proved in Lost in Translation, Coppola can masterfully convey alienation via setting and mise-en-scene. Dunst has to do little but look as young and confused as possible. Coppola takes her diminiutive frame and naïve, pixie face and places her against a background of ornate wedding cake-like settings and grand, sublime architectural vistas of the real Versailles. It’s seductive but gives one pause.
The camera never leaves Versailles except when on tiny jaunts to Antoinette’s chateau or the opera in Paris. When the angry mob shows up at the castle gate, they’re a faceless mass, the dark that vanquish the light (and mess up the furniture). To a girl who came from Austria at 14 and did her best to bury her head in shoes and gardens, they must have seemed exactly that.
It’s tough to formulate a firm opinion about the film. One the one hand, it’s historically irresponsible. Not only does it engage in some of the most absurdly ironic casting I’ve ever seen (Molly Shannon as a member of the French court and Rip Torn as Louis XV), but it also does a horrible job of alerting the audience to the importance of any of the events taking place. Louis XVI agrees to help fund the American War of Independence, but Coppola doesn’t seem to care about explaining the role this plays in increasing disconent on the streets below. The calling of the Estates General is wholly left out. And the moment in which Antoinette faces the crowd at her balcony near the film’s conclusion utterly lacks weight. Such an abandonment of politics is an interesting tactic suggestive of the way in which Antoinette experienced life in revolutionary build-up.Unfortunately though, it also robs the film of any potential tension or climax. A knowledgeable viewer who understands the times in which the sovereign is living know full well what’s coming. But the hordes of Laguna Beach groupies who will no doubt line up in droves to see Dunst’s ornate, colourful frocks won’t have a clue.
Marie Antoinette is now playing at the Paramount (John and Richmond, 416-368-5600), Silver City Yonge and Eglinton (2300 Yonge., 416-544-1236), Sheppard Grande (4861 Yonge, 416-590-9974) and others.