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October 14, 2006

When Sofia Met Marie

Coppola sabotages her vision outright, resulting in the most conventional kind of boring period trash

Among the torrent of criticisms I've heard flung toward Marie Antoinette, I think my favorite thus far has belonged to a colleague who intimated to me after Cannes: "It's a total disaster, but it's a disaster only she could make."

"She" being Sofia Coppola, of course, and my friend being, well, wrong. Marie Antoinette (screening this weekend at the New York Film Festival and hitting theaters Oct. 20) is neither disastrous nor smudged with the dense atmospheric fingerprints that made Coppola's previous two features, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, such quiet miracles. That the film achieves neither is perhaps its most resonant disappointment. I could have lived with a misfire -- lamented its failures but cherished its ambition -- and I thought I had acquired a sort of lifetime-exemption level of faith in the director that even The Godfather Part III cannot shake. But this -- relieving itself of said ambition within an hour of its opening credits, expending its goodwill on redundancy and self-indulgence, all but smirking at the viewer as its story's wheels fall off and it sclerotically lurches up its own ass... To be honest, it really just feels like kind of a waste.

Which I guess, in the end, indeed proves some kind of accomplishment that subverts the more general word-of-mouth rupture dogging Coppola and Marie Antoinette all the way to the multiplex. I mean, betraying expectations, for better or worse, is part and parcel of auteurdom, right? And at least in theory, to hear Coppola tell it, the film comes from a reasonably pure place that you won't hear me second-guessing.

"I didn't know very much about her except for just the mix of this iconic, decadent and evil queen of France," she said at Friday's NYFF press conference for the film. "When I started reading about her from Antonia Fraser's biography I was struck by how young she was -- she was a 14-year-old kid -- and just reading about the side of this real person who had a lot of sympathetic qulaities as well as flaws, she was very human. I thought it was interesting because I obviously didn't know these things about her -- to show a real person behind all the myths that were based on inaccuracy."

It's the abstract "something" that is problematic here, because Coppola trades the early, reticent promise of Marie Antoinette for the hollowness of sheer period melodrama. As the teenager chosen to marry the ambivalent dauphin Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), Kirsten Dunst is a shivering marvel of silence: accustomed to ritual from her aristocratic upbringing in Austria, she nevertheless struggles adapting to the texture and pageantry of royal life in France. "This is ridiculous," she sighs in a rare spot of impatience. "This," responds the Comtesse de Noailles, "is Versailles."

Indeed it is, and with this pivotal acknowledgement Coppola follows her subject's inclination to not only accept such excess, but to embrace it. Montage after montage of consumption -- of food, clothes, gossip and adultery -- reflect the shallowness of Marie Antoinette's existence. Her sexless marriage supplies perfunctory conflict in a bloodless second act; the financial and emotional costs of her compulsions emerge in a staid biopic yawn as Coppola races to tack on the French Revolution. Secondary characters exist only as critics or enablers of her whim; considering the range of interpersonal crises Coppola adeptly mined in her first two features (not to mention a cast including Rip Torn, Steve Coogan and Judy Davis), her failure to offer men and women worth knowing is beyond frustrating -- it's astonishing.

Serviceable as Dunst is, the flimsiness of her surroundings overmatches her. She is at her best alone -- languid in a bath or a field, stricken with mourning or desire, shot exquisitely by camera ace Lance Acord. And call me backhanded, but she is at her very best in the film's first 45 minutes, before Coppola jams pages of flat, airless dialogue in her leading lady's mouth.

Not that Dunst would ever say so, but she won't dispute it either. "For me it became very sensual -- what the weather was like, how I felt in my dress," she told The Reeler at Friday night's premiere. "Everything became harder, because I really had to be much more of an observer sometimes than when I had a lot to say. It's much easier to hide behind things. When it's just you in front of a camera, you feel very vulnerable."

And it shows -- at least for a while, anyhow, as opposed to Schwartzman's mute, miscast ironic detachment everywhere from the dinner table to the chaste bedroom. Then there are the anachronisms: the rock music; the American dialects; even a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors that make it into a particularly garish montage of materialism ("Why? Because I could," Coppola said Friday when asked why she left the shoes in the film). I'm not as put off by the soundtrack as many viewers have been (and will continue to be), but its juxtaposition with traditional 18th-century chamber pieces undercuts a more essential thematic vision of rebellion and teen angst. It also flirts with sentimentality, all but insisting we care that the filmmaker and her subject are growing old with their music.

"When I thought about making a film of Marie Antoinette, the book, I approached the music as a challenge of trying to make her portrait as something I would want to see in my style," Coppola said. "And I wanted to make an impression that would deal with her from that point of view. I wanted the music to reflect the emotions that the character was having at that time and to contrast the world of the adults and the court life and the music of the period against the world of the teenagers -- more contemporary, exciting and that shows that energy."

Alas, the music only colors over Marie Antoinette's anemia, flooding its pastel frames with the patina of disillusion -- that of a standout filmmaker whose previous triumphs were defined by individuals (including herself) at odds with their natures. In turning to mostly random indulgence, Coppola sabotages her vision outright, resulting in the most conventional kind of boring period trash with a gimmick fetish. What a shame. So sure, maybe not just anybody could have misstepped so wildly, but I don't know -- it always feels the same when a movie breaks my heart.

(Photos: STV)



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Comments (3)

Great review. I particularly love "sclerotically lurches up its own ass."

I think you make some excellent points though, I must confess, as someone who was not such a fan of Sofia's earlier work I was struck by something you said: "Secondary characters exist only as critics or enablers of her whim". That, which appears to be true in this film, is precisely one of the problems I saw with "Lost In Translation". The secondary characters were nothing more than perfunctory placeholders who represent (in one or two dimensions at most) archtypes (the demanding wife back home, the aloof husband/photographer) and thus we were all too easily being manipulated into liking one group and disliking another. I felt it lacked genuine insight and the nuance of real problems - it sounds like Sofia has fallen short on the same issues this time, only on a grander and far more obvious scale. I, for one, would be very interested to see her work when stripped of Lance's incredible camera...

You rock. I did like the movie a little bit more then you, but you're spot on with the comment about dunst's performance being the best in the beginning.

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Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst, and Jason Schwartzman at the Marie Antoinette press conference on Friday. About.com The Reeler (I heartily agree with every word) GreenCine ... [Read More]

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