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Marie Antoinette
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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a. "The Dauphine Wears Prada" or "Chicks On The Seine"
5 stars

A wise man once said that one does not read the Bible for its prose and along those lines, it could also be said that one does not attend a Sofia Coppola film to experience the fundamentals of classical narrative structure–a storyline that moves from A to B to C with logical precision, easily grasped themes and characters with fully explained and developed arcs that allow you to understand who they are and why they behave in the ways that they do. There are plenty of filmmakers out there who are gifted at that sort of thing and while I have no doubt that Coppola could be one of those people if she wanted to, those just aren’t the things that she is interested in exploring in her films. Instead, she is more fascinated with using the tools of cinema to create films that invoke the moods and sensations being felt by the characters, whether it is the intense feelings of desire of a high-school boy consumed with desire for a seemingly perfect yet frustratingly unattainable girl (“The Virgin Suicides”) or the sense of confusion and curiosity that comes from finding yourself alone in a strange and unfamiliar environment for the first time (“Lost in Translation”). Of course, one person’s “invoking of moods and sensations” is another person’s “inability to tell a real story” and despite having only made two previous feature films, Coppola has become one of the most divisive names in contemporary American film–many people have hailed her as a genius and a unique cinematic voice while others have decried her as a pseudo-intellectual poseur who has only been allowed to make films because of her famous last name.

“Marie Antoinette,” her first film since the winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the surprise hit “Lost in Translation,” seems unlikely to reconcile those two schools of thought regarding her work anytime soon–in fact, it will likely drive a larger wedge than ever between her supporters and her detractors. In it, she expands on her particular approach to filmmaking to the point where the mood she creates is literally everything and traditional storytelling is treated as an afterthought. Whether this approach works or not will depend on what kind of movie you are looking for. If you are looking for a straightforward biopic that chronicles the who’s, what’s, where’s, why’s and how’s of the life and death one of the most (in)famous names in French history, you are likely to walk away from the film feeling that it is the most shallow and one-dimensional effort to date from a shallow and one-dimensional filmmaker. On the other hand, if you are looking for a film that approximates what the giddy day-to-day life within the lavish-but-insular walls of Versailles–an existence where everything is pretty and the ugliness and unrest of the real world is kept far outside the palace gate–must have been like for Marie Antoinette, which is pretty much Coppola’s intent, then you are likely to find it a visually dazzling and surprisingly powerful work that is more about the pleasures and perils of superficiality than merely a superficial film.

The film more or less sticks to the basic facts of the life of Marie Antoinette (played here by Kirsten Dunst). One of the fifteen children of Maria Teresa, the Queen of Hungary (Marianne Faithful), she was plucked from her life in the Viennese court at the age of 14 and sent to France by her mother to marry Dauphin Louis (Jason Schwartzman), the equally youthful son of King Louis XV (Rip Torn) and the future ruler of France, in an effort to solidify French-Austrian relations. After being stripped of everything Austrian (and I do mean everything, you pervs), Marie crosses the river into France and is immediately whisked into her marriage ceremony. After that, she settles into the world of decadent privilege that is life in Versailles–a never-ending series of lavish parties, pretty pastries, prettier clothes and one highly detailed ritual after another. (We learn, for example, that aiding Marie as she dresses in the morning is an honor that goes to the highest-ranking member of the court that is present–great if you are the highest-ranking member of the court but not so great if you are standing naked in the middle of a chilly room as your dressing gown is being passed around as a series of higher-ranking people continue to stream in.) The only fly in the ointment is that Marie’s sole purpose for being there is to bear a child that will fully seal relations between the two countries and Louis demonstrates absolutely no interest in this particular duty. This is a development that leads to much nasty behind-the-scenes gossip, mostly fueled by the sexy and malicious Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), an anti-Marie who is the mistress of Louis XV and who, despite never being able to hold a position of real power within the court, has her own means of persuasion to get what she wants.

Aside from that, Marie’s life is essentially one long party that is interrupted only by the sudden death of Louis XV and her sudden ascension to the throne as the wife of Louis XVI. Eventually, after seven unconsummated years of marriage, her husband is finally inspired to do his kingly duty and a child is born. With her position cemented once and for all, Marie continues her life of hedonism but it becomes evident that even the pleasures of Versailles can grow tiresome after a while and not even the distraction of making her singing debut or making out with a hunky Swedish count (Jamie Doran) are enough to rouse here. At the same time, she has been so fully insulated from the day-to-day realities of the outside world, where her extravagances and seeming disinterest in the welfare of her people (best exemplified in her alleged “Let them eat cake” remark) have begun to spark the flames of a revolution that eventually led to her date with a guillotine in 1793.

These are the facts that every schoolchild (or every movie critic with quick access to Wikipedia) knows and any filmmaker worth his or her salt could have welded them together into a perfectly acceptable and perfectly conventional biopic. What Coppola has done here instead is try to recreate the feel of what life for Marie Antoinette must have been like during those years in Versailles and so focuses on the things that would have held her attention back then. If Marie Antoinette and her friends had been able to roam Versailles with Hi-Def digital-video cameras, I suspect that the footage that they would have captured would be quite similar to Coppola’s film–a never-ending parade of decadent parties, lavish confections and one fabulous outfit after another–because these are the elements that, lacking anything else of substance, came to dominate her life and the lives of most teenage girls at one time or another. (Of course, they probably wouldn’t have come up with compositions as strikingly beautiful as the ones captured here by ace cinematographer Lance Acord.) To this end, Coppola is absolutely correct in her decision to virtually exclude all mention of politics until the citizens of France are literally storming the gates–this was an aspect of life that was consciously kept from her and it would seem silly to suddenly have her discuss the growing tensions or to even acknowledge that they exist. This is why it is inaccurate to compare Marie Antoinette to the contemporary likes of someone like Paris Hilton as others have done–while both are young women of privilege gamboling through their privileged lives without a thought or care for the real world, Marie Antoinette did so largely because it was pretty much all that she could do and her tragedy was that she wasn’t able to see the resentment building against her because of her isolation. (Like that other French female icon, Joan of Arc, she became a legend in her own time and was eventually executed for not living up to that legend without really doing anything to deserve either fate.)

One of Coppola’s more controversial artistic gambits in “Marie Antoinette” is her use of 80's-era New Wave pop hits on the soundtrack–instead of an original score or more traditional pieces of classical music, we are treated to the sight and sound of the ascension of Louis XVI being scored to The Cure’s “Plainsong” and the participants of a masked ball whirling on the floor to Siouxsie & The Banshee’s “Hong Kong Garden.” Although this approach has enraged many (at the screening I attended, one colleague who fancies himself an expert on musical scoring was seething with anger at Coppola’s musical choices), it is actually a canny move that brilliantly cuts to the heart of what Coppola is trying to accomplish. For starters, blending the look of this particular era with this kind of music isn’t that radical of an idea–in the early days of MTV, more than one New Wave band peppered their videos by incorporating such imagery into the proceedings. (If there have to be complaints, then let he or she who was around to experience the “Rock Me Amadeus” video cast the first stone.) By peppering her film with such tunes, she is serving notice that her film is less a traditional biopic and more along the lines of those wild pseudo-biopics that Ken Russell used to crank out in the 1970's (such as “The Music Lovers,” “Valentino” and the delirious “Lisztomania”) that were less about the subject at hand and more about using the combination of a period setting and rock music as a means of exploring contemporary popular culture. It also works because it allows us to get more fully inside the head of a pop-obsessed teenage girl who would be the prime audience for the popular tunes of the day–since the popular tunes of that era would sound like staid classical music to contemporary ears, the use of Gang of Four or Aphex Twin puts us in that mindset quicker. Finally, the gambit pays off because Coppola’s musical choices are so canny and spot-on that they are simply irresistible–for those who disagree, I defy you to watch the fashion montage that is scored to Bow Wow Wow’s immortal “I Want Candy” and think of a single piece of music that would better suit the heedless giddiness of such a moment.

To play Marie Antoinette in a film like this may seem like an easy enough job (you smile and wear a lot of pretty clothes and that is about it) but it is a role far more complex than it appears because of the insulated manner in which it has been conceived–if she ever comes across as too self-aware for her own good for even a second, the spell is broken. To that end, Kirsten Dunst (who previously worked with Coppola in “The Virgin Suicides”) turns in a complex performance that appears to be one-note on the surface–all smiles and giggles and coquettishness–while conveying different facets beneath that allows her to come off as charmingly giggly, monstrously self-absorbed, lonely, tragic or cheerfully guileless in the blink of a beautifully lashed eye. (This is made even trickier by the fact that she is on screen for virtually the entire film.) Surrounding her is a supporting cast that brings new meaning to the word “eclectic” but all work surprisingly well. As the bashful Louis XVI, a man thrust into the twin jobs of fathering a country and an heir long before he is ready for either job, Jason Schwartzman is sweet, funny and strangely touching. The great Judy Davis get some hilarious moments as the Comtesse de Noailles as she patiently explains to Marie Antoinette about all the elaborate rituals she must undergo every day in the name of tradition. Steve Coogan, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson and Rose Byrne also score points as various members of the court. However, the two most sheerly entertaining performances to be had come from Rip Torn and Asia Argento as, respectively, Louis XV and Madame du Barry. Torn is hilarious as the crudely down-to-earth king and Argento is a sexy, snarky wonder as his mistress, a woman who knows exactly what the rest of the court thinks of her and frankly doesn’t care. (If there is a flaw in “Marie Antoinette,” it is that they bring such fire to the proceedings that when they both disappear from the story at roughly the same time, their absence leaves a gap that never quite gets filled.)

With “The Virgin Suicides,” Sofia Coppola showed that she was a promising young director who had more going for her than a famous family. “Lost in Translation” proved that her earlier success was no mere fluke and that she was indeed a born filmmaker. With “Marie Antoinette,” she has definitively announced herself as one of the major directorial voices at work today. As I said before, her unique approach is not designed for mass appeal and this is a film that will especially polarize viewers. Those able to get on board with Coppola’s vision will discover “Marie Antoinette” to be a bold, beautiful riot of imagery that nevertheless has more going on beneath the surface than may meet the eye at first. For those unwilling or unable to wrap their heads around what she is getting at here, I guess they can just stay at home and eat cake.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15265&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/20/06 00:13:32
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User Comments

5/21/14 Joe Smaltz Dreary, drab, boreing, tedious, a poor girl in an arranged marrige with a gay guy.. 1 stars
3/07/11 brian It's like the Moulin Rouge redux without the humor. Unconventionality is not enough. 3 stars
6/12/10 art a geat big COSTUME PARTY! 1 stars
3/16/09 :/ bleh not that good. 2 stars
1/07/09 Mariah disappointing, i thought it was going to be way better. but kirsten dunst did a great job. 2 stars
9/25/08 Annie G Amazing costumes, but I couldn’t figure out why else anyone would watch! 2 stars
5/29/08 Matt Inappropriate music and a story which suddenly ends when in truth it is far from over. 3 stars
5/15/08 Karrie Millheim Good protrayl of Marie Antoinette, the only problem was the ending was stupid 4 stars
5/09/08 doug great movie, bad ending. left me with tons of questions 4 stars
4/01/08 superfriek OMG, this movie rocks 4 stars
6/11/07 kiara best movie sooooo good and the costumes and food look sooooo good 5 stars
5/22/07 Corky like spending two hours eating dry white bread 1 stars
5/08/07 David Pollastrini Kirsten Dunst is hot in this! 3 stars
4/23/07 fools♫gold Too OLD to reign; Sofia Coppola's Great Work twice accomplished. 5 stars
4/22/07 djacosta Embarassing piece of shit 1 stars
3/30/07 chris. hey look! they partied just like we party! 3 stars
2/27/07 Beau Good portrayal and cast! great directing from 'copola' and performance from 'kirsten dunst' 3 stars
1/23/07 Antoinette Forbes I think this Movie was very said 5 stars
1/11/07 Richard Brandt The most interesting part was Louis' ruinous investment in a foreign war... 3 stars
1/03/07 jazzman Poor try on remaking a modern Amadeus...What an ending!!! 1 stars
12/12/06 jdean62 Acting was great ...but it put me to sleep !!! I was disappointed... 3 stars
12/12/06 William Goss Looks great, but any novelty wears off within an hour, with dry costume drama persisting. 3 stars
11/10/06 Louise A sumptuous feast for the eyes, tinged with the frustration felt by the young queen. 4 stars
11/05/06 Aaron tranquilizing take on most exttravagant period in history 1 stars
10/30/06 justine not a hip adaptation as it's peddled to be but a tragic bore. 1 stars
10/30/06 mac its was great love it ! it could have been better 4 stars
10/28/06 anni it sux 1 stars
10/26/06 ken Glittering, gaudy, profoundly feminine, rather gayish, frevolous and completely pointless ! 2 stars
10/24/06 Misha Definitely not a history lesson, visually stunning, conveys period excesses very well 4 stars
10/23/06 Stacy Like L.I.T., this would be better if it utilized some sort of narrorator. I liked it, tho'. 3 stars
10/22/06 Lauren Different and bold, and for this alone it is difficult film to dismiss. Worth seeing. 4 stars
10/21/06 Riki As meandering as Lost in Translation, if you like that sort of thing 3 stars
10/20/06 Pritchett Sofia Coppola is as good a director as she is an actress. 1 stars
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  20-Oct-2006 (PG-13)
  DVD: 13-Feb-2007



Directed by
  Sofia Coppola

Written by
  Sofia Coppola

  Kirsten Dunst
  Jason Schwartzman
  Judy Davis
  Rip Torn
  Rose Byrne
  Asia Argento

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