September 25, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Directed by Sofia Coppola Starring Kirsten Dunst

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Sofia Coppola’s New Wavesque Marie Antoinette gives a rare sympathetic glimpse at the rise and fall of the infamous French queen. The kind of public ridicule Coppola endured after making her acting debut in The Godfather: Part III most likely helps this daughter of a Hollywood monarch identify with Antoinette’s story of a clueless royal reviled by her subjects. As if cautioning the audience on her through-the-rose-colored-glasses subjectivity, Coppola here adopts a predominantly cotton-candy pink mise en scène.

First seen here as a giggling blonde, Kirsten Dunst’s Marie must leave all her Austrian connections (puppy included) behind at age 14 for France to marry Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), the gawky grandson of King Louis XV (Rip Torn). With international relations on the line, Marie quickly faces the daunting task of producing an heir with the sexually unresponsive Louis-Auguste in order to prevent the annulment of her marriage – a feat that would eventually take her seven years to accomplish. Meanwhile, she finds consolation in a life of excess involving fashion, food and parties to relieve her sexual draught, especially with the lack of adult supervision after Louis XVI’s coronation. With the royalty’s lavish lifestyle and the country’s contribution to the American Revolutionary War, the French people become embittered about the national debt and their own revolution is imminent.

Reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola puts together several visually poetic montages – many overflowing with silk, bonbons and gâteaux. Unfortunately, these vignettes seem to really work against the film’s true strength in illustrating Marie’s insular existence. The most memorable scene is a silent shot of a stoic Marie blankly looking out from the balcony, with the telephoto lens rapidly pulling back to reveal the enormity of the palace that represents the oppression she must bear.

Coppola manages to further undermine her own effort by going off on a tangent with Marie’s alleged affair with Swedish Count Alex von Fersen (Jamie Dornan), whom the film characterizes as some kind of a manwhore. Curiously, the co-writer/director leaves out Marie’s imprisonment and decapitation by guillotine, which would be devastating here given Coppola’s sympathetic treatment.

The most notable gimmick in Marie Antoinette is its use of a contemporary soundtrack consisting of bands like The Cure, The Strokes and Air. The film’s attempt at the New Wave feel loses its momentum whenever Coppola half-heartedly trades rock songs and handheld camera for classical music and stately cinematography. This novel concept works well with some of the montages, but becomes laughable when Coppola employs it diegetically – particularly in a ballroom scene. Any of the film’s attempts at authenticity are futile at that point.

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.