Review by Paul Stathakis | 2006

Monotonous Antoinette

Each char­ac­ter in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” inhab­its a col­or­ful world.  They don extrav­a­gant cos­tumes and jew­el­ry and the Queen of France is no excep­tion.   Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dun­st) is 14 when she is deport­ed to France by her moth­er, the queen of Aus­tria, to mar­ry the Dauphin, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartz­man).  In the open­ing min­utes of the movie we wit­ness Marie’s ini­ti­a­tion into the French court.  “Now you must say farewell to your par­ty and leave all Aus­tria behind,” says the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis).  Even Marie’s adorable pug is tak­en away from her and she is told she can own many French dogs once estab­lished in her new palace — in Versailles.

Marie un-enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly learns to live in a monar­chy that is both scan­dalous and deceit­ful.  A dozen or so ser­vants are at her bed­side each morn­ing, ready to pam­per her.  Her first morn­ing as the Queen is amus­ing.  She has many rea­sons to gaze at her ser­vants curi­ous­ly and state, “This is ridicu­lous.” It seems absurd to Antoinette but not to those who serve her with such dignity.

Sofia Cop­po­la is the ide­al direc­tor for any movie deal­ing with mis­un­der­stood char­ac­ters.  Marie is such a char­ac­ter and she under­goes a com­plete trans­for­ma­tion as the film approach­es the end.  When we first meet Marie, she seems like a young autonomous woman but as time goes by she begins to rely on her ser­vants.  She is spoiled and a scene in which she picks out pairs of fan­cy shoes makes this dis­tinc­tion obvi­ous.   Kirsten Dun­st is an actress who is nor­mal­ly cast to play a love inter­est.  In Marie Antoinette, she is giv­en an oppor­tu­ni­ty to exhib­it her flex­i­bil­i­ty as an actress.  Not only does she turn in a rather author­i­ta­tive per­for­mance but she is able to con­vey deep emo­tions when need­ed.  Con­sid­er a scene where she weeps in a room by her­self because despite attempt­ing to seduce her hus­band the Dauphin each night he will not be inti­mate with her.  It does­n’t help that every­one is depend­ing on Marie to give birth to an heir and it isn’t long before she is harsh­ly crit­i­cized by her moth­er and those who serve her in the palace.  It becomes a major issue for her and the monarchy.

Marie Antoinette” is a film which cel­e­brates the joy of liv­ing or as the French would say, “Le joie de vivre.”  The film’s strongest qual­i­ty is that it is able to invite view­ers into a dif­fer­ent way of life in sequence with Marie.  We learn about her world as she dis­cov­ers it as well.  But in con­trast with a film like Lost in Trans­la­tion (2003) or The Vir­gin Sui­cides (2000), which also starred Dun­st, we don’t feel the mag­ic or volatil­i­ty of a Sofia Cop­po­la pic­ture.  She is a clever writer and what­ev­er she has learned from her father, Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la, has shaped into an even bet­ter direc­tor.  Her images are live­ly and this is a peri­od piece unlike any oth­er we’ve seen in recent years.  It takes place dur­ing the 18th Cen­tu­ry but fea­tures music from bands like The Cure and New Order.

Per­haps “Marie Antoinette” is a film which does intend to tell a dark sto­ry.   I assume there is a mean­ing to the col­or­ful sets and extrav­a­gant décor.  The col­ors mask the decep­tion which lies beneath the foun­da­tion of the monar­chy.  We see Marie dressed in vibrant gowns and even the cakes which she eats are so neat­ly pre­pared her plate.  At the end, there is a shot which shows her bed­room in ruins.  This sig­nals the arrival of the French rev­o­lu­tion and there is not a speck of bright or pos­i­tive col­or to be found in the clos­ing images.

The idea behind “Marie Antoinette” may be larg­er than life and, for this rea­son, one could argue that Coppola’s goal in mak­ing the film was to paint a por­trait of a woman trapped in the heart of a monar­chy she has very lit­tle con­trol over.  At first, we sense she can han­dle the pres­sure of being the Queen of France but by the end we real­ize she is, like the Dauphin claims, too young to reign.  Although Dun­st is very com­mand­ing in her role this should not be con­sid­ered her great­est per­for­mance.  Nei­ther Jason Schwartz­man nor Asia Argen­to is able to nail a sol­id per­for­mance and, oppo­site to my expec­ta­tions, there are only two Oscars that should be award­ed to Marie Antoinette: cos­tume design and cinematography.

Like with M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” (2006), Marie Antoinette feels like one of Sofia Coppola’s per­son­al projects.  It is not a strong film but has the look of one.  It’s a peri­od piece with a hint of pop art.  But the end result is a mediocre dra­ma with stan­dard per­for­mances.  There is one feel­ing that can­not escape my mind and that is Sofia Cop­po­la.  Through­out every scene, cos­tume, set, and spo­ken dia­logue, we image Cop­po­la stand­ing behind the cam­era with a big smile on her face.  She was able to get away with “Marie Antoinette” with­out hav­ing us sec­ond-think her skill as a writer or direc­tor.  Now it’s time for her to give us a mag­i­cal picture.


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