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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