The Reeler


October 19, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Coppola's queen has everything she could want -- except for an emotional arc

The ads and the soundtrack invoke punk, but Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is straight-up glam. The movie isn't about revolution (though a French one does factor into the final act) -- it's about makeup and wigs, pretty dresses and shoes and teenagers playing king and queen. In Coppola's estimation, regardless of the period or class or immense political power, boys will be boys and girls will certainly be girls.

Kirsten Dunst's Marie Antoinette begins as a naive waif -- in the first 30 minutes she utters more giggles than coherent lines of dialogue -- and ends up as something resembling a mature, free-thinking queen. Her somewhat dubious internal transformation follows a remarkable external one: When she arrives on the French-Austrian border to assume her position as wife to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), heir to the throne of France, she gets a fabulous makeover: from blonde Austrian into a proper, powdery royal. Louis and Marie Antoinette are promptly married, their union blessed by the grandfather King Louis XV (Rip Torn, of all people), but the dauphin -- who looks nearly as girlish as his new wife -- isn't interested in making an heir. Marie Antoinette's bedroom manner is just one of the ways in which Coppola seeks to recoup the queen's reputation; though it's shy Louis who refuses to consummate the relationship, Marie Antoinette receives all the blame. Her entire political future rests on the fate of her as-yet unpopulated uterus. "Everything depends on the wife, if she is kind and sweet," her mother warns.

Marie Antoinette is both, and she is patient as well, while her husband shows more interest in hunting expeditions and pet elephants than his own animal instincts. "Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness," she promises. Who that nondescript "everyone" might be is left vague -- once Coppola and Dunst arrive at Versailles (thankfully, the real location, used to perfection) the movie rarely leaves. There is barely even a mention of a French populace until somebody mentions that pesky Bastille and its unfortunate storming. When Marie Antoinette denies ever uttering her infamous decree "Let them eat cake," we believe her, if only because in Coppola's film she hasn't offered a single thought about the French people, if only to dismiss their needs.

That may be Marie Antoinette's (and Marie Antoinette's) most frustrating aspect. Coppola's film is lustrously photographed (by cinematographer Lance Acord), and it revels in the queen's superficial glories: fashioning the biggest hair; eating the most delicious desserts; drinking the most champagne. But when history intrudes and the script calls for Marie Antoinette's maturation from lush to leader, it presents little evidence, besides her good intentions, to support that transformation. The ending feels like that of a conventional biopic, while the rest of Marie Antoinette is bred from significantly fresher (and significantly more fun) stock. Coppola's treatment of Marie's emotional triumphs lacks the conviction with which she presented her material ones. Paradoxically, the queen and the movie itself are at their most rebellious at their most glamorous.

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Comments (2)

In reality, Louis XVI was uncircumcised and the intercourse was quite painful for him.

Good movie!

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