[Author’s note: Because I love Pajiba readers the way normal people love a big basket full of calico kitties, the following review has been expanded beyond its original, admittedly hastily written form. Here, folks, eat some cake.]
Costume dramas exist in part to remind us that we really aren’t so different from our ancestors, that regardless of changes in technology or society, the essential human concerns — sex, money, death, love, hate, revenge, duty, etc. — remain the same. The typical example of the genre — from the “Masterpiece Theatre” or Merchant-Ivory schools of taxidermy — does this by studiously and often tediously recreating the details of a classic novel or historical event, emphasizing the very aspects of the past that make it difficult for modern audiences to relate to the characters. Certainly, this method has its merits; for those who have the patience, historical accuracy can enrich understanding and empathy for a character’s plight. But how can you interest a young, modern audience with a short attention span; how can you persuade them that a historical film could be relevant to their lives, and maybe even fun? Leave it to Hollywood’s current poet of adolescent anomie, Sofia Coppola.
Coppola’s Marie Antoinette takes the widely reviled queen and recasts her as a misunderstood poor-little-rich-girl — if the movie had been made in the 1980s (and between the frequent use of New Wave tracks and the quick-cut montages of luxury goods, it often feels as if it were), it would be a total Molly Ringwald role. Married off in her mid-teens to secure an alliance between the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons, young Antoine (Kirsten Dunst) is forced to leave family, friends, and even her beloved pug behind. With no allies but many potential enemies, she’s thrust into the pomp and hypocrisy of the French court, where she’ll have no power or even security until she produces an heir for the dauphin, timid Louis-Auguste, the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, who is Coppola’s cousin).
The only problem is that Louis is a disaster in the sack. Night after night, the dauphine tries to coax him into lovemaking, only to be rebuffed with claims of exhaustion or uncomfortable titters as her young husband finds himself becoming aroused. It’s no help that they are under constant scrutiny — joined by dozens of nobles in both the dining room and the bedchamber, observed like subjects in a psychological experiment. With no chance for private conversation, they remain virtual strangers. And as their very public marriage remains very publicly unconsummated, she becomes the subject of derisive whispering at Versailles, and each new letter from her mother, Empress Maria Theresa (Marianne Faithfull), reminds her that it is her duty to bear her husband an heir, whether he likes it or not.
With no other outlet for her growing frustrations, Marie Antoinette does what any modern girl would do — she indulges in shopping and rich desserts. She surrounds herself with frivolous girlfriends, and they dress themselves in the most outlandish fashions and wigs that a late Rococo couturier can provide (pretty outlandish). Together, they buy clothes, eat sweets, and drink champagne, and for a while she’s able to forget all the terrible things being said about her. But the problems that beset her upon her marriage to Louis will dog her for the rest of her short life: Though she does eventually produce an heir, she remains widely disliked, a situation only exacerbated by her naiveté about politics and her increasingly spendthrift ways.
Coppola tells the story through color and texture as much as more traditional narrative means, allowing the sumptuous fabrics, furnishings, and confections to convey both the differences between the Austrian and French courts and our heroine’s growing hedonism as she succumbs to any temptation that allows a momentary sense of escape. When Coppola does resort to dialogue, the multinational cast all speak in their own natural voices and accents, and there’s a marked contrast between Dunst’s slangy Americanness and the stiff formality of representatives of the French court (particularly Judy Davis as the Comtesse de Noailles, the desiccated, delightfully nasty mistress of the house, responsible for enforcing the court’s elaborate and nonsensical protocol).
Coppola means her young American audience to see Marie Antoinette as being just like them, as little at home in this world as any modern person would be, as uncomfortable in her role as dauphine and, later, queen, as she is in her constricting bodices and ludicrously broad panniers. She wants us to judge Marie Antoinette not by the standards and concerns of her subjects, but by those of 21st-century America — sure, she’s vapid, spoiled, and self-indulgent, but she’s more recognizably human than any of the girls on “Laguna Beach” or “My Super Sweet 16.” I’ve never been a big Kirsten Dunst booster, but there’s something ineffably right about her here; her broad, American features and lack of affect are a perfect fit for Coppola’s idea of the character. She’s really all wrong for Marie Antoinette the actual historical figure, but for this Marie Antoinette, she couldn’t be more right.
While Coppola modernizes the feel of the material, much of the screenplay is as historically sound as anything you’d find on the History Channel, incorporating many events and dialogue faithfully. Coppola herself scripted the film, working from Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey, with input from French historian Evelyne Lever, author of Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. Coppola’s view of Marie Antoinette is debatable — many historians continue to take a hard line against her frivolity and lack of real understanding of the French people — but it’s a convincing portrait of a person in distress, thrown into a situation she can’t control and can never escape.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Marie Antoinette / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | October 21, 2006 | Comments ()