The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, November 16, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Marie Antoinette

Full review behind the jump

Marie Antoinette

: Sofia Coppola
: Sofia Coppola, based on the book Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
: Ross Katz, Sofia Coppola
: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rose Byrne, Rip Torn, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, Danny Huston, Marianne Faithfull, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson

There’s a myth, or at least a very convenient excuse, that people don’t want to see movies where the main character makes “wrong” decisions. I think this is hooey – you can only have a really interesting story with imperfect characters and dramatic choices that defy black-or-white moralizing. I don’t demand characters do the “right” thing, but I hope that they will do a believable thing; that is to say, the filmmakers have placed them in a setting and provided for us enough detail that the emotional course they plot does not ring false against their nature as we understand it.

I was wary of
Marie Antoinette going in for any number of reasons – the unexpected (and not totally successful) casting choices, the challenge of meshing an American pop soundtrack with a pivotal moment in the history of Europe, a heroine most famous for her frivolousness and violent end, and especially the potential for a letdown after writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning Lost in Translation.

With those doubts stacked against it, I can still honestly say that
Marie Antoinette is a rather remarkable movie. Often flawed, but clear about its intentions. It’s more of a diary than a history, extremely focused and intimate with a girl shielded utterly from ordinary life, revered as an icon, imprisoned in an endless orgy of luxury, ritual and gossip that viewed her as a womb whose eccentricities were to be tolerated, then finally made the public face for the catastrophic collapse of an institution she had no power over.

It does not judge how she decides to carry out such an existence, but by always searching honestly for her emotional state, presents a nuanced and eye-opening portrait of a life scrambling to define itself in a confounding system, very much like the early sections of
The Last Emperor or Zhang Yimou’s psychosexual soap opera Raise the Red Lantern. Those are both masterful pictures and this one isn’t, but I’m still grateful to have been surprised by its many qualities.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a princess of Austria who is essentially given to France as a token, a peace offering. She has never had to want for comfort and shows little knowledge about affairs of state, her concerns are those of other fifteen-year-old girls: her friends, her clothes, her cute dog. All these are literally stripped from her – in a specially-built tent on the border she’s undressed in order to enter to pass into her new homeland with nothing of the old.

As bride to heir Louis (Jason Schwartzman), her primary functions are to look magnificent enough to inspire the populace, and produce a healthy baby boy. It is not much of a turn-on to have your marriage bed blessed by a cardinal, or to have a King (Rip Torn), surrounded by dozens of noblemen, tuck you in on your wedding night by pounding the floor with a staff and bellowing “Good luck! Good work!

Her young husband is not much interested in her – he seems to have withdrawn long ago into a quiet place inside himself, where he hopes that if he hunts well, speaks politely and cleans his plate, people will leave him alone. He likes keys – making them, reading about them, talking about them. They are far more interesting than the frustrated, still-flowered wife laying next to him. It is a queer position for young Marie when her mother (Marianne Faithfull) is writing letters about the dire consequences for two nations if the girl cannot inspire her spouse’s passion.

The palace of Versailles is a citadel of extravagance, and that she understands and takes to with zeal. She consumes desserts of the most heavenly design. She buys many, many beautiful shoes. Her quarters are all bright and powdery, as if every corner has been dusted with fine sugar. Filming in the actual palace, augmented by K.K. Barrett’s production design, makes the movie sumptuous for the eyes. Barrett’s a veteran of Lost in Translation, as is the great cinematographer Lance Acord, one of the best working today at using handheld cameras to find emotional immediacy in a scene without producing nausea.

Coppola’s treatment of 18th-Century French politics is of a bureaucracy of privilege that measures its greatness by its own convolutions. There are dozens of ladies to help Marie dress in the morning, and a fiercely-exercised etiquette over whom in the chamber holds the rank to hand the future Queen her bloomers. She cannot be spoken to until she speaks to someone, and controversy erupts when she will not speak to Madame du Berry (Asia Argento), a courtesan from the streets who has captured the King’s fancy and bulls her way through both protocol and taste. It causes severe strain among the nobles at court to reconcile the wrongness of du Berry’s presence with the wrongness of Marie to shun someone the King likes.

The oncoming revolution is suspenseful in as much as the occupants of Versailles persist in their obliviousness of it. Marie does not understand how money works. When she thinks a certain type of tree would be pretty on the grounds and is told it will take the saplings several years to grow into the fullness she envisions, she asks why full-grown ones cannot be brought in. Pity the landscaper who must say he will see what he can do. When told that funds for her pet projects are running out, she simply says she will ask husband for more. News that the people of France are starving is a thing to be sad about, but in a sort of distant way. Much as Louis XVI, on ascending the throne, can do little for the state except listen to his advisors and feign wise consideration before nodding, Marie has no sense for why a failed economy was within her power to cause. In many ways her naïveté nonetheless made her right – the problem was there long before her.

Dunst is capable in many moments, especially when overwhelmed by the stakes of her sex life, and her relief and joy when a daughter is finally born is infectious. In the end she fails to find a real identity for Marie, Schwartzman does better at achieving a consistency over the whole film, his persistent remoteness is as frustrating as it is fascinating.

You wish Marie didn’t throw so many parties, or gamble so much, or spend so much time on her hairdos. I wish that there was a little less Bow Wow Wow on the soundtrack. But I will say that in the course of Marie Antoinette I always believed the choice. The frozen image of Marie as a vainglorious and disdainful emblem of the French Monarchy is not overturned here, but thawed and enriched, as Coppola intended. That’s the success of the film.


  • I wanted so much to love Sofia's movie like I have her others, but I just couldn't do it with this one .. It's all done with great style and is a joy to look at, but I never latched on to exactly what she was going for, and the 45 minutes or so that could be Birthing Rituals of the Young and Noble were just downright boring ... a glorious mess

    By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at 12:09 PM  

  • My girlfriend had much the same reaction as yours, reel fanatic. She perceived that the movie was losing its way in the middle and liked it a bit less overall than I did. "A glorious mess" is an excellent summation.

    By Blogger Nick, at 6:53 PM  

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