Of her three mesmerizing directorial efforts, "Marie Antoinette" is Sofia Coppola's least successful motion picture. Since 2000's "The Virgin Suicides
" and 2003's "Lost in Translation
" rank among the best of the decade, that is not to say her latest film is a disappointment. Coppola's fingerprints as one of the most promising auteurs of her time are all over "Marie Antoinette," a revisionist drama about the legendary 18th-century Queen of France that incorporates theory and occasional modern flights of fancy with historical fact. Story details appear to be roughly accurate, even with an exquisitely chosen updated soundtrack including everything from opera to New Wave pop-rock music by such artists as Gang of Four, Aphex Twin, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bow Wow Wow, The Strokes, and New Order. Also setting "Marie Antoinette" apart from other period pieces is the angle Coppola takes in breathing life into the title character; this is not some stodgy Masterpiece Theater production, but a resonating expressionistic tale about the tragic end to one's youth.
Even for viewers not closely schooled on the particulars of Marie Antoinette's controversial life and times as Queen of France, they will likely be familiar with her cruel fate: accused of treason and executed by beheading in 1793 at the age of 38. Writer-director Sofia Coppola, basing her film on the book "Marie Antoinette: The Journey" by Antonia Fraser, recognizes this fact and has chosen to narrow in on her earlier years leading up to what can only be called the end of Marie Antoinette's reign as a respected leader of an entire country. An archduchess in Austria, Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is chosen at the age of 14 to consummate the alliance between Austria and France by marrying Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), the grandson of King Louis XV (Rip Torn) and the next in line to inherit the throne. Forced to say goodbye to her family and friends, she is suddenly thrust into a world of royalty and privilege. Her marriageor, more specifically, her sexual relationshipwith her husband is on less solid footing as whispers within the court rise and pressure heightens for Marie to birth a future king. This finally happens all in due time, but soon Marie is faced with a whole new set of problems as her spending of money gets out of hand and her actions begin to wear down on France's trust.
"Marie Antoinette" is an intoxicating study of mood and beauty over substance and emotional potency. Politics are kept along the sidelines and only faintly have a place in the insular story being told. For what proposes to be a character study, Marie and the other central figures surrounding her are only cursorily developed and often stand at arm's length from the viewer. The minimalist dialogue and quick jumps through time don't exactly help this matter. More often than not, the viewer has no choice but to fill in the gaps in regards to certain relationships and events, and to surmise on what genuinely makes Marie tick as a person.
If the film lacks dramatic urgency, it nonetheless weaves quite an enthralling spell. The production design by K.K. Barrett (2002's "Adaptation
") and art direction by Anne Seibel (2006's "The Devil Wears Prada
") are lush, vivid and colorful. The cinematography by Lance Acord (2002's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
"), making full use of the French locations, is utterly breathtaking and poetic. The editing by Sarah Flack (2002's "Swimfan
") has the gift of fluidity, thanks in no small part to director Sofia Coppola's masterful know-how when it comes to pacing, timing and expertly framed mise en scenes
As for the music, it is heavenly in its use and perfect for the tone, rustling up an emotional response in the audience far greater than anything brought about from the characters themselves. Individual images and sequences are wondrous, as in a scene in which birthday girl Marie and her fellow revelers journey outside just in time to watch the sun rise, or another scene where Marie and Louis travel home by carriage after a night at a costume party. Nothing much happens in these interludes on the basis of plot progression, and yet they are powerful and ruminative snapshots of life in motion.
Mediocrity has never been a part of Kirsten Dunst's (2005's "Elizabethtown
") vocabulary as an actress, and this role as Marie Antoinette is one that she was born to play. Twenty-three at the time of filming, Dunst is credible as a 14-year-old in the early scenes and just as believable as a young woman in her mid-twenties whose life-as-a-party mentality comes to a crashing halt. Her ability to speak without being audible is crucial to portraying Marie, as is her innate screen presence. As husband Louis-Auguste, Jason Schwartzman (2005's "Shopgirl
") embraces his shy, endearing side playing a young man whose sexual dysfunctions have left him insecure. The marriage between Marie and Louis XVI could have been strengthened some with a few more scenes between them where they get to know each other, but the affectionif not exactly the loveis palpably felt. There isn't a weak performance among the rest of the supporting ensemble, but few receive the screen time to grow into three-dimensional characters and some abruptly disappear midway through, never to be seen or heard again. Either a lot of footage had to be cut, or the screenplay needed another draft to clarify certain points and round out the overstuffed cast.
Flawed though it may be, "Marie Antoinette" is a most welcome original that gladly breaks the mold of the genre and dares to be different. There may be a more thorough examination of Marie Antoinette's life down the road, but that isn't director Sofia Coppola's concern. Indeed, take away the period era, and the ornate costumes, and the opulence, and the historical background of the tale, and what she has made is a touching coming-of-age story about that time in everyone's life when they must leave behind their childhood and move on to the next phase, whether they want to or not. With seemingly the world at their disposal and power at the tips of their fingers, Marie Antoinette and her peers are still only teenagers, living the high life, partying the night away, and realizing too late that they will never be able to have that time back again. The old adage goes that money doesn't buy happiness, a bitter lesson that, in the end, Marie Antoinette has learned all too well.