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Marie Antoinette   B

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola (based on the book by Antonia Fraser)
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Steve Coogan.

Review by Rob Vaux

What a relief that Sofia Coppola can tackle a historical epic with the same auteurial flair that marks her more contemporary works. Most directors faced with a figure like Marie Antoinette would take the road of terminal dignity, allowing the sets and costumes to crush their voice beneath bombastic gravitas. But Coppola, whose vision is distinct and unique, if not always perfect, has enough sense to stick with the skills that got her here rather than abandon them in the face of a more daunting production. They make Marie Antoinette light on insight and historical detail but unparalleled in the evocation of mood and character.

Her secret weapon is the division between the historical and the modern, cut along broadly defined lines. The images establish proper time and place; despite being coated in a fluffy, pastel-colored frosting and presented with occasional MTV-style montages, nothing feels inaccurate about the sights on-screen. The production received unprecedented access to the palace of Versailles, providing a stamp of visual authenticity that no set or mock-up could duplicate. But while the eye stays fixed on the 18th century, the ear is treated to a much different palette. Period orchestral pieces punctuate what is essentially a modern rock score, marked by anachronistic but bizarrely appropriate songs by the likes of Bow Wow Wow and the Strokes. The dialogue, too, makes little effort to disguise its modernity, spoken with brazen American and British accents by the uniformly solid cast.

The effect creates a readily accessible reflection of the title character's identity: conjuring her historical circumstances, yet warm and accessible to a modern audience. Sent to the court of France at the tender age of 14, the young Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is immediately embroiled in the petty but oh-so-vital machinations of European aristocracy. As a foreigner (she hailed from Vienna's royal Hapsburg family), she is an immediate target of suspicion, and her chilly family back home makes it very clear that her only purpose in life is to mother the king's son (thus cementing the alliance between Austria and France). Her husband, the eventual Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) is an insecure twerp whose bedroom fumblings mark a shockingly broad naivetĊ. Her confidantes are concerned mainly with ridiculously elaborate etiquette and poisonous gossip of the Dangerous Liaisons variety. And the French people whom she was ostensibly brought here to rule never so much as enter her vision -- the first time she sees them, they're literally kicking down the door. Yet for all the pressures and cruelties of her world, it also holds limitless privileges. None can say no to her demands (she's the future queen after all), and the indulgences available to her are literally beyond count. So she does what any bored, entitled youngster would do: throw wild parties, buy a million pairs of shoes, and gamble away a not-so-small fortune every evening.

And eat cake. Lots and lots of cake.

Coppola concerns herself with impression and incident rather than particulars. Like her earlier films, Marie Antoinette drifts from scene to scene in a semi-dream state. Energetic bursts of activity separate periods of contemplative silence and voice-over monologues, entrenching us slowly in the young queen's mindset and allowing us to perceive the world through her eyes. Coppola utilizes Dunst in much the same way as she did in The Virgin Suicides, trusting the actress to hold our attention even when she has nothing to say. Dunst proves up to the challenge, though her Marie is not quite as indelible as her Lux Lisbon was in that earlier film. The resulting portrait is simple, but lingers in the mind quite effectively. Though sheltered and endowed with breathtaking privileges, Marie emerges as very sympathetic: a good-hearted woman who did her best but whose position ironically denied her the very tools she needed to succeed at it. Her foreign background and expensive tastes made her an obvious candidate for pillory, and yet she rarely comes across as unfeeling or irresponsible. She's merely trapped by circumstance, as is her husband (a similarly well-meaning youth way out of his depth). Coppola takes care to point out the Revolution's true roots (specifically the financial crisis created by aiding the Americans against the British), but shows scant interest in the political upheaval that ultimately led her heroine to the guillotine. We see very little of the mobs and torches, instead indulging almost entirely in the excesses which preceded them.

It's a delicate balance, but Coppola is well suited for it. She handles the logistical responsibilities of the project with an admirably deft touch, finding the same wistful combination of sass, meditation, and regret that characterizes the rest of her work. A figure like Marie Antoinette feels like a natural fit for such an environment, and if the film struggles to find purpose from time to time, it always ensures that we're enjoying ourselves along the way. The results may not belong in the halls of historical greats, but its billowy folds of cotton candy fluff make for a one-of-a-kind counterpoint to the stogy self-importance of similar works. It will be interesting to see how Marie Antoinette ages -- whether its approach will grant it long-term distinction, or relegate it forever to dated camp. Either way, it's far from business as usual: a brightly colored trifle whose froth and nonsense only enhance its uniquely buoyant appeal.

Review published 10.20.2006.

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