by Mel Valentin
Roundly jeered by audiences at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and vilified in the French press for its apparently derogatory, inaccurate portrayal of a long-dead French queen, Sofia Coppola’s follow up to "Lost in Translation," "Marie Antoinette" is thankfully not the career-ending disaster that the early response indicated. While "Marie Antoinette" is far from a perfect film, suffering as it does from a slightly banal storyline and an often unsympathetic central character, it’s also never short of watchable, thanks, as expected, to the period detail (filming at Versailles, the official residence of French monarchs helps), sumptuous costumes, painterly compositions and cinematography, and yes, a soundtrack of mostly 80s-alternative hits that, with one or two (or three) exceptions complements the other elements on view.1768, Austria. Born into privilege, wealth, and power, the fourteen year-old the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria (Marianne Faithfull), Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), has been the future king of France, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). Marie Antoinette leaves everything behind, including her friends, her family, and her pet dog, with one exception Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan), the representative of the Austrian court in France. At the border between Austria and France, she meets the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), a representative of the French monarchy who will instruct Marie Antoinette in the protocols of the French court. As a symbol of her passage from Austria to France, from her family to the family of the French king, Louis XV (Rip Torn), Marie Antoinette is compelled to disrobe completely, changing into clothes provided by the French.
"Worth seeing? Surprisingly, yes."
Marie Antoinette meets her future husband, Louis XVI, for the first time. Affable, but slightly befuddled and self-absorbed, Louis finds it difficult to show anything beyond the common courtesies expected of him. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI marry and make their home at Versailles, the official residence of the king, but Louis has trouble consummating their relationship. The news quickly spreads through court gossip, pushing Marie Antoinette to the margins. From afar, her mother, Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithfull), counsels her in the demands and obligations of her position at the French court, to procreate and give birth to a French heir to the throne. At nineteen, Marie Antoinette ascends to the French throne with her husband, Louis VXI.
Marie Antoinette already lavish lifestyle grows even more ostentatious. She acquires a French villa of her own, a private retreat from the suffocating routines at Versailles, but continues to throw parties for herself and her entourage, go on expensive shopping sprees (shoes, shoes, and even more shoes), and eventually takes a lover, the Swedish Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan). Marie Antoinette begins to develop a more serious, sober character, however, when the news finally arrives: she’s pregnant with (presumably) the king’s heir. But her joy is the court’s disappointment. Her first child is a girl, but the second is a boy and thus, the heir to the French throne. As Marie Antoinette continues her pampered lifestyle, she begins to receive news of unrest outside Versailles, the popular discontent that will ultimately lead to the French Revolution and the executions of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for treason against the new republic.
Story wise, Sofia Coppola had to wrest a narrative, a storyline and character arc out of biography and historical facts. Creating that storyline and character arc, however, often involves fictionalizing events, eliminating inconvenient facts, and otherwise compressing events that take place over several decades. Here, drawing from Antonia Fraser’s biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Coppola chooses a potentially banal storyline, Marie Antoinette’s personal journey from inexperienced child to self-centered party girl and ultimately, to mother, wife, and queen. Near the end, Marie Antoinette chooses to remain with Louis XVI at Versailles, when fleeing with her children would have been the safest, most prudent decision. Instead, she remained, leaving Versailles only when Louis XVI decided to leave and by then, their fates were sealed.
While that story arc might be banal to some, it at least gives Marie Antoinette a dramatic structure, albeit a loose one. Although the loose, meandering structure will be dull to some moviegoers, the real question here is whether Coppola succeeds in making the doomed queen of France a sympathetic figure. The short answer: a highly qualified yes. By emphasizing Marie Antoinette’s excesses during the middle third, Coppola risks losing her audience. Coppola presents Marie Antoinette as a decadent, vapid Paris Hilton-like member of the idle aristocracy. Yes, the famous “Let them eat cake” line gets mentioned, but only to debunk it. Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle, however, more than proves the point, as do the Greek chorus of sorts, Aunt Sophie (Shirley Henderson) and Aunt Victoire (Molly Shannon) who continually comment on events.
Oddly, Sofia Coppola ends Marie Antoinette not with Marie Antoinette’s death, but with Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI leaving Versailles for the last time before their capture, imprisonment, and eventual execution by the French Revolution. Coppola doesn’t even bother to slip in a title card to explain Marie Antoinette’s fate. It feels like a major cop-out and cheat (because, in all honesty, it is). The reasoning behind Coppola’s decision is, at best, murky, unless she meant to avoid or limit French criticism (she received it anyway, as expected). Either way, moviegoers unfamiliar with the French Revolution will leave the movie theater with unanswered questions. Hopefully, they'll bring a friend with a passing familiarity with French history (if they haven't read this review, of course).
On the plus side, Sofia Coppola doesn’t force her cast into adopting French accents (with the exception of non-American actors in speaking roles, of course), an otherwise difficult proposition given the mix of contemporary and archaic idioms the characters use. And while the early reviews denigrated Coppola’s admittedly idiosyncratic decision to use 80s alternative hits for her soundtrack, mixed in with period music, it turns out to be one of Coppola’s better-informed decisions. For the first third, Coppola relies on period-specific music or contemporary music re-orchestrated using 18th-century musical instruments (here a harpsichord, there a harpsichord, everywhere a harpsichord). It’s only when Marie Antoinette becomes a full-fledged party girl at a masked ball in Paris that the music switches over into contemporary songs played as originally intended. Coppola chooses Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden” as the track where everything changes for Marie Antoinette.To recap, set aside the early, overly harsh criticisms and, if you can, the art-cinema trappings of the storyline, and what you get is a semi-compelling, but always ravishing look at a distant time, place, and culture. "Marie Antoinette" may be flawed (irredeemably flawed for some), but it also confirms that Sofia Coppola, whatever her family connections or premature accolades and awards, is a talented filmmaker. And yes, that last sentence will be a surprise to readers familiar with this reviewer’s criticisms of Sofia Coppola’s last film, "Lost in Translation" (as much as a surprise as it was to write).
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15265&reviewer=402
originally posted: 10/20/06 17:29:58