Marie Antoinette (2006): Sofia Coppola’s Misfire

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Dissatisfying as a provocatively modernist-revisionist look at the life of the notorious French queen, “Marie Antoinette,” Sofia Coppola’s third feature, is a frivolous souffle rather than nutritious meal, made easier on the eyes by Kirsten Dunst’s natural charm and Milena Canonero’s lush costumes.

This $40 million folly, which opened in France the day it world-premiered in Cannes and is slated for a fall release in the U.S., sharply divided critics at the first press screening with boos countered by applause. Similarly divisive response, by both critics and viewers, might repeat in other countries.

To enjoy Coppola’s frivolous film, you have to let go of everything you know about the much reviled queen from history books and previous screen biographies, Hollywood and otherwise.

Though conceptually and dramatically flawed, “Marie Antoinette” is not unwatchable, and some viewers may enjoy it as a guilty pleasure. Coppola deserves credit for at least trying to bring a fresh approach to her subject by humanizing her central characters. An honorbale exercise (emphasis on both words), Coppola’s deconstructvist work is certainly not the weakest film to be shown in competition this year. As of Day 8, my vote still goes to Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales,” a sophomore jinx if there ever was one! (See Review)

On paper, a revisionist approach that looks at the much despised Austrian princess who became France’s queen during the pre-Revolution era and was executed along with her royal husband King Louis XVI must have sounded intriguing. Though based on Antonia Fraser’s well-received biography, “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” the film lacks substance–it’s a frothy divertissement, to borrow from the French.

Like her protagonists, who come across as passive vessels of history, Coppola seems dazed and confused by the young royal couple and the momentous historical and political context in which they lived, circumstances that ultimately led to one of the most seminal events in history.

Alas, Hollywood’s second major effort to make a movie about the despised queen, best-known for saying, “If there’s no bread, let them eat cake,” is a disappointment. Back in 1938, director W. S. Van Dyke made “Marie Antoinette” with the encouragement of MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg, who cast his wife-star Norma Shearer in the lead, even though Shearer was much too old to play the queen. Only Hollywood politics can account for the fact that Shearer received an Oscar nomination for her part(See Below).

To Coppola’s credit, the casting of the lead roles with the radiantly charismatic Kirsten Dunst and the eccentric Jason Schwartzman is the best thing about her idiosyncratic interpretation. Closer in age to the queen by a decade, Dunst looks and sound persuasive enough in the early chapters; it’s hard to imagine another American actress in the role.

Nonetheless, as if to make up for her writing and directing shortcomings, Coppola has gone for a lush and ostentatious production that benefits immensely from the costumes of Oscar-winner designer Milena Canonero, and from shooting on location, in and around Versailles; some of the scenes are not only historically correct but are filmed at their actual physical location.

It’s hard to tell whether the undernourished narrative is a result of poor conception and/or of having too large a budget. After working with a $5 million budget on her secondand bestfeature, the Oscar winning “Lost in Translation,” Coppola was entrusted with $40 million for her modernist historical fable and might have consciously decided to spend this largess on production values.

The first scene, in which the Austrian Marie Antoinette arrives by gilded coach at the French border and is forced to take off her clothes and to divest herself of her Austrian belongings (and, by implication, heritage), is promising. Indeed, the initial reel, which depicts the 14-year-old princess sent to France to marry the dauphin and future king, who was only one year older, sets an amusing tone for a tale about immature youngsters running around aimlessly in the Palais and its gardens, while playing all sorts of games.

Though set in vastly divergent locales, all of Coppola’s films, and particularly “Lost in Translation,” are about cultural dislocation and social alienation. Like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters in that movie, both Marie and Louie XVI seem ill-adjusted– truly misfits–for the predestined roles that kinship and history had assigned them. In this respect, they resemble Bertolucci’s young protag in “The Last Emperor,” another misfit-king lost in the maze of broader historical forces beyond his control.

Spanning two decades, beginning with Marie Antoinette at 14 and ending with the Revolution, when Marie was in her early 30s, “Marie Antoinette” is at its best in the early chapters, in which Coppola succeeds in humanizing Marie and Louie, showing their fables and foibles.

However, the movie gets increasingly trivial and shallow as it goes along. Indeed, after the second reel, you begin to suspect that conceptually Coppola has not made up her mind what the movie is about, and whether the royal habitat is a playground (the equivalent of a modern American shopping mall) or a prison, within which walls a serio-comic-tragic coming-of-age-saga takes place.

Major questions remain unanswered at the end: Does Coppola conceive Marie as a victim of her personality, and/or background, and/or her times Is the queen merely a scapegoat of the Revolution Is she a passive observer of historical forces

For a two-hour movie, “Marie Antoinette” is notably plotless, which is strange, since there are so many narrative strands that Coppola could have advantageously developed, such as the pressure on the young bride to produce an heir, or the tale of a frustrating marriage that was not consummated for seven years, due to Louis’ unwillingness and inability to perform his duties.

Disregarding the external history and politics would not have been so noticeable, if Coppola took a more ironic and in-depth look at the marriage of two youngsters that were at once doomed and blessed by their blue blood. She could have shown in greater detail, and to more amusing effects, the intrigues and scandals within the royal palace, such as the malicious gossip about the King’s impotence, or the derision addressed at Marie’s excessive attention to her pets and then babies.

I have not read the screenplay, but the problem may reside right there on page. (Coppolas has said that it was a “daunting task” adapting Fraser’s thick bio). Thus, instead of dramatizing events, Coppola resorts to brief dialogue scenes, voice-over narration, and letter-readings. And she avoids dwelling on incidents that would helped give dramatic punch and shape to the proceedings, such as the affair of the necklace that seriously damaged Marie’s reputation, the escape and chase of the royal family, and their eventual imprisonment and execution.

Coppola carries to an extreme the notion of Marie Antoinette as an insulated, oblivious, and self-absorbed girl-woman who just wants to have fun. In Dunst’s interpretation, Marie is just a naive, aloof, and immature girl who can’t handle the burden of her royal position or the pressures of being a wife; she prefers the company of her pets and children. This Marie is at her jolliest when she runs around Le Petit Trianon with her entourage.

Not as convincing as Dunst, Jason Schwartzman as King Louis XVI nonetheless has some good moments as a man who’s just as ill-suited to his historical role as his wife. Both Louis and Marie seem genuinely suprised by the growing unrest of the French masses, which leads to the Revolution.

The secondary characters are also underdeveloped, though most are well played. Danny Huston shines as Marie Antoinette’s older brother Joseph, who is brought from Austria to educate Louis on sexual mores in the bedroom. Essaying the role of King Louis XV, who’s more interested in coulinary and carnal pleasure than in politics, Rip Torn is solid and commanding, even if his accent and manners are too American. In the crucial part of the Austrian Ambassador and the queen’s personal advisor, Steve Coogan acquits himself more than honorably.

Also contributing life and energy to the amorphous text are Asia Argento, as the sultry mistress of Louis XV; Marianne Faithful as Maria Teresa, Marie’s politically shrewd mother; Molly Shannon as Aunt Victoire, and Judy Davis as the Comtesse de Noailles.

Visually, the production is extravagant and ostentatious. Special kudos should go to cinematographer Lance Acord, production designer KK Barrett, art director Anne Seibel, set decorator Veronique Meiberg, and particularly costume designer Milena Canonero, whose contributions make it easier (and less painful) to take the movie than it has the right to. As in every period piece, the movie contains the obligatory sequence of a plush costume ball, with dazzling outfits, shoes, and jewels, all of which often get as many close-ups as the human figures.

But it doesn’t help that “Marie Antoinette” suffers from all the ills inflicting international productions of the 1960s and 1970s, in which there’s a mlange of acting styles, accents, and behavioral manners. In this movie, it’s tough to reconcile Kirsten Dunst’s uniquely Californian presence with Rip Torn’s Texan interpretation, Molly Shannon’s TV sitcom-like rendition, and Judy Davis’ eloquent delivery.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

In 1938, Van Dyke’s “Marie Antoinette” was scripted by MGM’s top writers, Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Ernest Vajda, based on Stefan Zweig’s book. The film was nominated for four Oscars: Shearer as Best Actress, Robert Morely as Supporting Actor for playing Louis VI (a role originally intended for Charles Laughton), Cedric Gibbons for Interior Decoration, and Herbert Stothart for Original Score.