A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG, 123 mins.
Marie-Antoinette: Kirsten Dunst / Louis XVI:
Jason Schwartzman / Contesse de Noailles: Judy Davis / Louis XV:
Rip Torn / Duchesse de Polignac: Rose Byrne / Madame du Barry:
Asia Argento / Aunt Victoire: Molly Shannon /
Aunt Sophie: Shirley Henderson
Earlier this year Sofia Coppola’s historical biopic, MARIE ANTOINETTE, was booed at the Cannes Film Festival. After having finally watched the final product for myself, I find it increasingly hard to find anything misleading with that initial critical reaction.
MARIE ANTOINETTE is a mess, but at least it’s a highly ambitious mess from Coppola. I guess my most grave misgiving with the whole enterprise is not with its glossy facade. It does a masterful job with revealing all of the pomp and circumstance of Antoinette’s life. The film has a nitpicking level of detail in terms of its art direction and set design, not to mention that it does a bravura job of encapsulating the overall formality of the period.
Yet, there is no historical meat to this film’s bones. It is all flash with no context. It’s absolutely luminous eye candy, but offers noting intriguing to really say about Antoinette or her times. The film is curiously enigmatic. Scholars will leave the film let down, whereas lay film viewers with only a morsel of knowledge about the real Antoinette will leave the film knowing very little afterwards as well.
MARIE ANTOINETTE glosses over history to the point of frustration. Being a history major I can attest to the notion that people, dates and places are less important than context. Coppola does in fact do a terrific job of recreating 18th Century monarchy life to the silver screen. The film is an astonishingly impressive parade of awesome set design and breathtaking costumes. There is never one second of MARIE ANTOINETTE that is dull to look at. The film is an unmistakable technical dazzler. At times, it's quite breathtaking.
The unfortunate aspect of the film is that it's completely negligible about telling an interesting story about Antoinette’s life. Yes, her tale is one of unwanted containment and how she was thrown into a life that she hardly was prepared for (who, honestly, would want to abandon one's culture, move to another country, adopt their customs and enter into an arranged marriage while still a teenager?). Yet, the film offers nothing on the overall political and social perspective of the period. By the time the film was winding down to a conclusion and the angry mob was storming up the Bastille, I am sure that there were many in the audience that were scratching their heads. We are given bits of expository dialogue here and there about the events that were transpiring around Antoinette and her monarchy, but the film sort of treats them as afterthoughts. The world she lived in should have been as much of a focus as she was. Coppola, unfortunately, only seems vaguely interested in history. Her film is about the lifestyles of the rich and famous and she seems to care little about the larger events that were taken place on the outside.
For a figure that was stuck right in the middle of an intense period of civil unrest and upheaval, MARIE ANTOINETTE is fairly brainless with its title character. Sure, she is akin to a 18th Century Paris Hilton who liked to party hard into the wee hours of the morning, shop for the best shoes and apparel that France had to offer, and loved to hang with her Versailles peeps and spout out endless gossip. Okay, the film goes out of its way to present that over and over and over again. The woman had frugal tastes, loved delicacies, and slept around.
Yet, what did she really think about what was happening around her? What were her views? How did she feel about her countrymen? How did she view her husband’s willingness to spend a fortune to help the American’s with “their revolution” against the British when her country was in an economic tailspin? How did she feel about France having one of the largest national debts in all of Europe? The woman, in this film at least, seems utterly ditzy and clueless. Near the end when their castle is about to be stormed by an angry mob, she steadfastly states that she will not abandon her husband? But why? She cheated on him, and the country is in ruins. Why would she stay? The film never has the time to dive into her motivations. Instead, Coppola tells us she liked dresses and cake.
For an immensely talented young director and Oscar winning screenwriting that was able to so confidently dig deep into her complex characters in the ethereal THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and the pitch perfect LOST IN TRANSLATION, it’s kind of shocking how Coppola disregards story and character development in MARIE ANTOINETTE. The film is kind of – on the whole – dumbstruck. There had to be – there just had to be – more to Antoinette than looking pretty and appearing simple-minded, which she does throughout most of the film. The film treats her with curiosity, but not with any thorough exploration or complexity. On top of that, we get horribly miscast leads, a terribly crafted soundtrack that reeks of forced and anachronistic pop songs, and a lot of modern day colloquial dialogue that was most likely designed to make Antoinette more easily digestible for hip, modern audiences. I dunno, I am all for revisionist historical films, but not ones that are thematically and historically vacant.
Anyone that has taken History knows that Antoinette is a highly intriguing figure in 18th Century France. Her post Revolutionary life is arguably the most intriguing, which ultimately concluded with her (SPOILER WARNING) beheading (hmmm…is established history spoiler territory? Never mind). Needless to say, the film does not dive into that fascinating period at all and instead narrowly focuses on her life up until the storming of Bastille on July 14, 1789. Now, I would easily argue that the film would have been vastly more absorbing if it focused less on her rise to power and he wild eccentricities and more on her reaction to the wider problems that her country faced. Nevertheless, Coppola hones in narrowly on the earlier aspects, which makes MARIE ANTOINETTE feel unfinished.
As the film opens 14-year-old Austrian Marie Antoinette (played by the not even vaguely Austrian Kirsten Dunst) travels to France in 1770. She is sent there to marry the Dauphin, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, faring a bit better with his role). The reasoning here is simple: A marriage between the two nations would provide stronger, everlasting ties for an equally strong allegiance. Obviously, Marie is like a fish out of water and the remarkably etiquette-heavy French Royal lifestyle does not sit well with her. On these levels, the film is on strong ground and does a good job of portraying the incredible social redundancies surrounding the daily customs of monarchy life. Marie, for example, never undresses alone, nor does she bathe or dine alone. There is a woman aid at her side every moment, even to wipe her hands when needed. Perhaps this is the impetus for her later rebellious and hedonistic behaviour. The protocol of her life jails her, which is why she strives to break free and be her own woman.
Needless to say, she finds some new friends in her new country, such as Ambassador Mercy (the always great Steven Coogan) and eventually becomes close to Comtesse de Noailles (the great Judy Davis) and the Duchesse de Polignac (Rose Byrne). She also meets some troublesome adversaries, which primarily come in the form of Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), who is married to the much older King Louis XV (played in what has to be the most miscast French Monarch ever, Rip Torn…no…seriously). To make matters worse for young Marie, her hubby is seriously lacking skills in the sack. Reasons for this are vague and sketchy. Obviously, if one had Dunst for a wife, consummating the marriage would appear relatively easy. Yet, Marie’s husband has little desire to impregnate her. He is such a social reject and so hopelessly dweeby that he makes Napoleon Dynamite look like Sean Connery. In any event, Marie pulls off every seductive move in her playbook, but Louis does not bulge. This creates a lot of fear and concern for the monarch without an heir in the future.
MARIE ANTOINETTE slavishly spends nearly all of its time on the customs and harsh daily rituals of monarch live, not to mention Marie’s several botched attempts to get laid. The other more fascinating elements - like her future infidelities with and the growing civil unrest with her country - are all but footnotes in the film. Again, the film is gorgeous to sit through on a visual level and the production values are Oscar caliber. The daily grind of endless rituals for Marie is rightfully presented as painfully tedious, but the film hammers home this point far too often at the expense of not focusing on anything else more interesting.
The film’s biggest sin is in its shallowness with Marie herself. Yes, she was a shallow and vain person, but there must have been more to her Valley Girl-like façade and her penchant for fine jewellery and candy. Ironically, Marie is so lifeless and dull that she never really takes center stage in the film. She never becomes someone to invest in or relate to. All in all, she’s an ignorant rich snob and not much else.
The performances don’t help either. Dunst is a serviceably adequate talent, but she is completely outclassed and lost in the film. Surrounded by the likes of Coogan and Davis, Dunst never seems confident in the role. She seems...well… too contemporary for the part and never once feels like a legitimate, living and breathing figure from the 18th Century. Maybe Coppola was – as stated – going for a more familiar lead in the role to make the film feel more relatable from a modern sensibility. Yet, Dunst is lost in all of the wicked excess and extravagant costumes. A part of Antoinette’s stature needs an actor of gravitas and stature, and Dunst is sorely lacking in these areas. She very rarely makes Antoinette compelling or stimulating. Her performance is like the film: On the whole, fairly ditzy.
Something also needs to be said about some of Coppola’s aesthetic choices. She, like her father before her, is an interesting cinematic visualist (she gave THE VIRGIN SUICIDES such a haunting and dreamlike quality). ANTOINETTE reinforces her skills as a strong director of images, but her choices for a modernistic soundtrack really fail. Firstly, contemporary pop tunes have seen the light of day in historical films before (and to much better effect in A KNIGHT’S TALE), but here it approaches a dyslexic quality. The tunes, by artists like The Cure, are mismashed in-between the other standard orchestral music. As a result, the film feels uneven and the pop tunes feel forced and tacked on. A KNIGHT’S TALE was decidedly a farce, which made the anachronistic soundtrack offbeat and funny. ANTOINETTE is, for the most part, fairly straight-laced, so why the modern soundtrack? If anything, it creates an awkward detachment in the viewers. Coppola thinks her film is more cool and stylish than it actually is - or should be for that matter.
Ultimately, Sofia Coppola’s ultra decadent and lavishly mounted MARIE ANTOINETTE is great eye candy, but terrible historical revisionism. The film is frequently buoyant, spirited, and marvelous on a visual level, but Coppola lets her predilection for rock and pop music, strangely modernistic dialogue, a genuine lack of accents, and a curious lack of historical commentary about 18th Century French aristocracy get the better of her. Yes, Coppola aesthetic underpinnings remain sights to behold, but her usual strong command of story and characters seems absent in ANTOINETTE. Inevitably, she wants to frame this famous historical persona as a humanistic and obsessively fashion conscious figurehead. Coppola yearns to present her in a revisionist tale of how misunderstood she was to her people and country. The irony with MARIE ANTOINETTE is that it also really misunderstands who she really is in the first place. The film is all looks and no substance. It’s as if Coppola herself is letting her audience eat cake without offering up a more savory, multiple course meal.