October 23, 2006

Marie Antoinette

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The first shot of Marie Antoinette reflects our collective shared image of the infamous queen. Kirsten Dunst, playing the title character, lays sprawled out on a delicate baroque settee, decked head-to-toe in luxury. She reaches out to an enormous pink cake sitting beside her, delicately sticks her finger in it and slowly and sensually licks a gob of the scrumptious pastry. Of course she does all of this while looking directly into the camera sporting a sinister smile. This is how we are taught to view Marie Antoinette: a decadent, unfeeling monarch who probably deserved the unglamorous death she received at the age of 38 on Dr. Guillotine’s deadly invention.

However, Sofia Coppola’s newest film carefully deconstructs this image of the cruel queen. Coppola does not glorify Antoinette nor become her apologist; the film is simply an exploration into the mindset of the era. If anything, we feel somewhat sorry for our protagonist. Married at the age of 15 and crowned queen at 19, Antoinette never grasps what tremendous power she has been granted.

Her mother, Maria Theresa (Marianne Faithful), the empress of Austria, and other advisors constantly implore Antoinette to produce an heir to cement her position in the court as well as the alliance between Austria and France. However, the young queen, not understanding the implications of her situation, simply smiles and frets over what shoes she will wear to the next party.

Of course the film flows with the force of dramatic irony. We all know that the beauty, the superficiality and everything else associated with the Bourbon court will come crashing down. The main tension in the film originates on just how and when this event will be portrayed.

Almost as enjoyable to watch as Dunst perfecting her role is Jason Schwartzman as the laconic and banal Louis XVI. Schwartzman personifies an almost reluctant king who, while being a nice guy, never has the capacity to fulfill his role as husband or as king. At their wedding, Louis and Antoinette dance ceremoniously in front of the entire court. The frigidity and formality of the event signify the fact that their marriage is not in their own interest, but in the interest of the state. Even more telling is the look in Antoinette’s eyes as she recognizes this fact and relishes it while at the same time Louis is utterly terrified by its significance.

Still, the film’s final credit must go to Coppola. Given a practical free pass to film at Versailles, the director fully takes advantage of the stunning setting. Coppola, a connoisseur of the latest musical taste, infuses her film with the fresh sounds of New Order and Bow Wow Wow. More impressive, though, are the sound effects of the film. This is a technically sophisticated and enjoyable film.

There has been a bit of “J’accuse” going around from critics who point out the film’s historical innacuracies. However these people fail to understand that the film’s purpose is not a history lesson, but a character exploration. Besides, anyone who goes to a movie for a history lesson, no matter how accurate it may seem, has a lot to learn. Instead of the historical liberties, what could be the film’s flaw is its disregard for its audience.

I personally enjoyed how Coppola took all the elements of a traditional chick flick — luxury, royalty, a bunch of actors with English accents and Rip Torn (er, maybe not) — and turned them 180 degrees. Never have so many physically good-looking people and things looked so figuratively ugly. The pompous and irreverent amount of waste is everywhere in the film.

Unfortunately, it is this sort of irreverence that movie critics love, but audiences hate. After two hours, an audience needs a sense of closure which this film conspicuously (and I feel appropriately) denies. I loved the irreverent style of the film, but I can understand why someone else wouldn’t. However, in a sense, Coppola is somewhat like her subject — playing out her fantasies in a very public medium, but only concerned with pleasing a minority.