As a writer and director, Sofia Coppola is totally hit or miss for me. The Virgin Suicides didn't really work as far as I was concerned, but then Lost in Translation is easily one of my favorite movies. So I was pretty excited to see on which side her next movie, Marie Antoinette would fall.
Marie Antoinette is Coppola's retelling of the life and times of the last queen of France--she of "let them eat cake" and French Revolution guillotining fame. It stars Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, Elizabethtown) as Marie Antoinette and Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, Shopgirl) as her husband, the odd and oafish King Louis XVI. It also has some unusual casting in supporting characters, such as Marianne Faithfull was Marie Antoinette's mother, the Archduchess of Austria Maria Teresa, and Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live, Superstar) as Aunt Victoire, one of the fatuous, gossipy social climbers in the French court.
The story itself is (loosely) based on a biography of Marie Antoinette by Lady Antonia Fraser that actually dispels at lot of misconceptions about her. We tend to think of Marie Antoinette as the spoiled rich bitch who too busy swimming in diamonds to care that her people were starving. In contrast, Coppola's screenplay depicts a woman who had nothing at all to do with the governing, but rather was basically a foreigner married off without a choice to secure relations between Austria and France. Her personal security was totally based on whether or not she could produce an heir--not so easy when (as the entire world knew) her husband wouldn't touch her. And her entire privacy was stripped away in the most horrible of ways--the French court members evidently had the honor of getting to dress her every morning and to watch her give birth in public. After all that, I'd need a drink, too.
Critics generally disliked Marie Antoinette and I can understand why. It is extremely light on dialogue, but yet the pacing of the action is very languorous, which means that at 2+ hours the movie feels quite slow. In Coppola's version of events, though, it is easy to understand why Marie Antoinette indulged in shopping and drinking and partying--she was lonely, young, and unaware that the French people were suffering. Yes, when you have the responsbility of a monarch you should know better, but it's also hardly fair to cut her head off for doing the same stuff college students do daily, especially when the ruling was generally the domain of the men.
Kirsten Dunst, on the one hand, is perfect casting for the part of Marie Antoinette. Her youth and demeanor can really break through all the stiff, formal assumptions we bring to 18th century royalty. The reality is that Marie Antoinette was a virtual child when she came to the throne--just 15 years old--and Coppola's jarring in-your-face presentation of life in Versailles with a Paris Hilton-esque queen makes the reality of the situation more comprehensible to modern audiences. On the other hand, Dunst herself is too modern to really pull off the part and breaks the spell whenever she opens her mouth.
There is no question that Coppola's movie is visually stunning--a candy colored view of the court. I think the montages set to modern rock music work well, further making the heart of the story accessible to the modern viewer. However, if you need your movies to move along quickly, then Marie Antoinette is probably not for you. But if you're a fan of modern retakes on classic stories with MTV editing (e.g., movies like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet), it might be right up your alley.
What’s on the Disc:
In lieu of a full-blown commentary, Marie Antoinette has a short, interesting "The Making of Marie Antoinette" featurette that is worth a watch if you liked the movie. Feel free to skip the deleted scenes--at 123 minutes the movie could obviously have benefited if Coppola had deleted a lot more.
There is also "Cribs with Louix XVI" featurette with Jason Schwartzman in costume doing an MTV Cribs-type tour of the palace at Versailles. Seems like it would be really funny, but the gag gets old quick.