Monday, October 23, 2006

Marie Antoinette

MARIE ANTOINETTE (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE takes a sympathetic view of the future French queen, a teenager who had to abandon everything she brought with her from Austria—even the clothes on her back—to wed dauphin Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman). The marriage is a political arrangement, one intended to strengthen relations between Marie’s Austria and France.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) finds life at Versailles to be a bureaucratic comedy. Getting dressed each morning is a group affair dictated by social standing of those present. The reigning king (Rip Torn) openly indulges his affair with the whore Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), whose purchased title is . Of greater concern is Marie’s unconsummated marriage with her disinterested husband. Louis Auguste expends his energy hunting and making keys while resisting Marie’s attempts to conceive an heir. Pressure to produce a boy builds as Louis’ sexual preference becomes gossip fodder and the young couple ascends to the throne.

Rather than a critical portrait of the infamous French queen, MARIE ANTOINETTE sees her as a bird in a gilded cage. Essentially traded like property to the French royal family for political capital, Marie lives the high life but one dominated by ennui and loneliness. Coppola’s Versailles insulates Marie from the outside world, all the better to understand why she fritters away her time on fashion and sweets while opposition to the crown builds in the streets of Paris.

As in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and LOST IN TRANSLATION, Coppola again proves that a dazzling visual sense is her strength as a director. MARIE ANTOINETTE is a gorgeous film with sumptuous production and costume design. Cinematographer Lance Acord’s natural lighting creates a fantasy world inside the royal home and highlights the beauty of the countryside with sun-kissed shots. Every frame of MARIE ANTOINETTE is like a painting, be it the stunning images of reflected light on the palace or the teeming party scenes.

Coppola’s talent with imagery and atmosphere make her narrative weaknesses all the more glaring. The fashion-conscious MARIE ANTOINETTE looks great. Imagine what this attractive but empty shell of a movie might have been with something inside it. Coppola has borrowed a thing or two from Wong Kar-wai when it comes to depicting wistful alienation, but unlike her previous efforts, here she struggles to give audiences any reason to care. There’s little psychological depth to the characters, and often they’re undercut by stilted dialogue, perhaps none more than Schwartzman.

Schwartzman came to attention as Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s RUSHMORE. Whether fair or not, it’s hard to separate the actor from his breakthrough role, especially when playing another awkward, sullen character with an odd hobby. Magnifying the problem, Coppola’s screenplay leads many of the performers to act as though this period piece is a contemporary production staged by the Max Fischer Players. Some of MARIE ANTOINETTE is intended to play as comedy, but it's not always clear when that's the case and when it's accidentally funny.

Dunst fares better as a ray of light among the dour royal court, but the writing lets her down too. MARIE ANTOINETTE feels for the queen, but the emotion is held at a distance. The slight plot, which meanders a great deal once an heir is born, exists as a series of events. Such an approach misses the opportunity to explore Marie’s feelings and instead favors the filmmaker’s reading of the historical figure without getting to know the person.

Grade: C

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