It is very quiet. Austrian Archduchess, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), aged 15, has just been betrothed to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), the future king on France. Throughout the long trip from Austria to France, there is an odd expression on everyone’s face. It’s as if the air itself is uncomfortable. As the French court awaits Marie Antoinette’s arrival, they putter around amidst the leaves and talk amongst themselves about nothing at all. They all seem to be thinking something to themselves. Judging from the same puzzled expressions on the moviegoers’ faces at the screening of Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE I attended, I think they might be thinking how strange the entire scenario seems. Everything feels a little bit slow, a little too quiet and mostly out of place. It is too early to give up on the film at this point. After all, this is Coppola’s follow-up to the haunting, offbeat LOST IN TRANSLATION. We are in good hands. This uneasiness must be in step with what Marie Antoinette is going through. Once she finds her footing, I’m sure she will break out of her shell and show these French folk how to live freely and the film will follow. Well, Marie Antoinette, the person, gets the hang of it but sadly, MARIE ANTOINETTE, the movie, never does. It remains hollow and aimless, leaving me wondering how Coppola could have been happy with it.
Coppola took a decidedly different and brave approach to chronicling the woman who became the queen of France at
age 19. She cast American actors in French roles and did not have them speak French or even with an accent. She boosts the soundtrack with 80’s new wave music instead of music of the period. The choices are meant to highlight the lonely plight of Marie Antoinette, to show that her emotional journey is timeless. Only Dunst shows hardly any emotion in the title role so there is nothing to take away. She can handle isolated and she can party with the best of them but she doesn’t show any turmoil or inner-conflict. It doesn’t help that Coppola’s script features naturalistic dialogue either. People rattle on about nonsense and gossip but rarely ever say anything of note to each other. Perhaps this is what Coppola had intended to show but meaningless conversation needs to give insight into a character’s mind at the very least. Here, all the minds are empty.
If it weren’t for the fashion and the food (and the fortune that must have been spent on making everything look so lavish), there would be nothing at all to focus on. For such famous historical figures, very little actually seems to happen to them. For what seems like half the movie, the entire plot focuses on how Louis won’t have sex with Marie Antoinette. It is certainly a pressing matter as an heir has to be produced in order to validate their marriage. If it is not consummated, it may even be annulled. When the “great work” was finally done, Marie Antoinette is elated but there is no explanation as to why it was so difficult to begin with nor does it seem like it became any more frequent afterwards. Her brother had a chat with the future king and that supposedly did the trick. There is no mention as to what that chat was about so your guess is as good as mine as to what finally turned him on. Historically, Marie Antoinette became the scapegoat for France’s increasing deficit. Whereas the majority of France’s money had been sunk into the 7 Years’ War and aiding the Americans in their struggle for independence from England, the masses pointed their fingers at Marie Antoinette’s frivolous spending. She went from an adored queen to being chased from her palace. The build that led to that change must have been tumultuous but Coppola leaves history at the door while very little happens inside. By the time the mob shows up to drive her and the king out, it feels more like a device than a moment in time.
I can see why the French booed at Cannes. MARIE ANTOINETTE is a calculated project that was troubled since its conception (Coppola abandoned it during the script writing process to create LOST IN TRANSLATION because she wasn’t sure how to make it work). The deliberate disregard for historical accuracy may have been valiant to start but finished feeling labored. Coppola’s previous works relied on emotion more so than dialogue to get under the skin of the viewer. Their success announced great promise for MARIE ANTOINETTE but Coppola lost her edge somewhere amongst the hundreds of pairs of Minolo Blahniks custom made for the film. A lesser director would not have taken such an ambitious approach to this story. A lesser director would have made a film far worse than this one. May MARIE ANTOINETTE be but a misstep along the path of a brilliant career.