review: marie antoinette
November 23, 2006
You might say that Marie Antoinette isn’t about all that much. You would be correct, of course, but that misses the point of the film: Marie Antoinette gives us revisionist history in pictures–exquisitely crafted pictures–from which we gain a brief, impressionistic glance into the world of a very young and impressionable girl who just happens to be the next queen of France. With consciously hip pop tunes to ferry us through its tableau of incredible excess, director Sofia Coppola creates a stridently modern and deeply personal take on love, loneliness, and the perils of growing up.
Much of its power derives from the narrative’s singular focus on Marie: her nervy awkwardness on first meeting new husband Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), her growing delight in the fanciful frivolities of life in Versailles, and her deepening anxiety about, as she says, “letting everyone down”–we see it all, but only in fleeting glimpses, as when cinematographer Lance Acord’s camera follows her into her bedroom, where the smile she puts on for the world cracks as she begins to cry, her pale face, tinted luminous golden-red by the light from the window, commanding the frame for several long seconds; the next shot finds her seeking solace in a new pair of shoes. Marie Antoinette is full of such little moments, and each one elicits a sigh of appreciation for how utterly perfect it is, all by itself.
In between them, we are treated to perhaps the most visually luscious production design ever conceived for a film. Granted exclusive access to film at Versailles, Ms. Coppola spares no detail (and surely no expense) in reproducing courtly splendor in all its charm, beauty, and ugliness, from untold mountains of pastel-hued confections to sumptuous costumes, gilded furniture, and outlandish performances. “This is ridiculous,” Marie quips, exhausted by the interminable demands of “propriety” surrounding the use of all this magnificence. The response? “This, madame, is Versailles!”
But all this beauty would be as nothing were it not for the grace of Kirsten Dunst, whose distinctly American beauty feels (strangely) at home in this streamlined, fictionalized account of events. Perhaps Marie ought to have be French for the sake of “authenticity,” but, recalling the ease with which I empathized with the myriad expressions which played across Ms. Dunst’s face throughout the film, perhaps it is that commonality of kinship which makes her protrayal so accessible and so delightfully familiar. It is a great strengh, I think: this is not a French film, and Ms. Coppola is not French (neither am I, though I wonder how the French have received the film). Nor is Jason Schwartzman, Ms. Coppola’s cousin, who plays Louis, a short and taciturn king-to-be, with such a blissful air of aloofness that we almost don’t take him seriously. Almost.
In fact, Schwartzman grounds the film with a performance that is both understated and, at very special moments, utterly hilarious (I defy you not to chuckle when, after ordering aid to the Americans, he picks up a rolled-up map and begins peering through it intently). The sisterly affection that Marie develops for him is both touching and ironic, as their non-romance fizzles badly–they share a bed, sleeping on opposite sides despite her repeated advances (they need an heir, you see)–and the dark circumstances surrounding the film’s conclusion provide ample evidence for his nobility, standing proudly as he does in the dark of Versailles while a pitchfork-wielding mob rails just outside.
Excellent also is the extensive supporting cast, from British comic actor (and personal favorite) Steve Coogan’s wry turn as “Ambassador Mercy,” to Rip Torn’s pompous, grandiose Louis XV, to the button-cute Lauriane Mascaro’s two-year-old Marie Therese: each has a part to play in this swirling array of color, laughter, gossip, and eventual decay.
And decay it all does, though the film spares us the nastiness of the royal couple’s gruesome end. Rather, it closes gracefully, a peaceful carriage ride giving us a farewell glimpse of Versailles in the fading light of the evening. In one instant, Marie leans forward; her face, previously a deep reddish-orange, is suddenly a blindingly bright white in the sun; seconds later it is gone. Would that I had had a camera to record that frame for posterity, I think now. Such great beauty is frightfully rare.
–D. S. W.