Saturday, October 21, 2006

Review - Marie Antoinette

“Off with her head!”. That was certainly the prevailing mood when Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The director’s unorthodox account of the young queen’s life received a hostile reception from the French audience, with the crowd’s chorus of boos becoming the festival’s biggest talking point. Was the angry response a reaction to the flippant approach this American filmmaker has taken to one of France’s most iconic figures? Perhaps, but I think it probably has more to do with the simple fact that the French know a bad film when they see one.

Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a very bad film, and yet it has numerous moments when you can see a genuinely gifted director at work. As such, it fits snugly alongside The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation; both beautiful, atmospheric films which gradually revealed themselves to be completely devoid of substance.

The best scenes in Marie Antoinette occur in the film’s first half, before the excessive running time throws the huge flaws and the complete lack of depth into sharp relief. Kirsten Dunst plays the 14 year-old Austrian Archduchess who is en route to France for an arranged marriage which will seal the relationship between the two countries. The process of Marie’s journey from Austria to France is well handled by Coppola; she is taken to a makeshift base set directly over the border and, after being stripped of everything that connects her to her former country (including her beloved puppy), she exits on French soil. Already this teenage girl seems burdened by the pressures ahead.

Her husband to be is the dauphin Louis-Auguste, later to become Louis XVI and played here by Coppola’s cousin Jason Schwartzman; and their initial meetings are slightly stiff and awkward, just like any teenagers on their first date. The pair are rushed into marriage and expectations are high for their wedding night, with Louis’ grandfather (Rip Torn) keen to see a male heir produced as soon as possible, but the night passes without consummation, something which immediately causes consternation in the palace. This added tension is the last thing young Marie needs as she struggles to come to terms with the demands of her position, and desperately attempts to get the hang of the bizarre rules and customs of her new home. Coppola has fun depicting the absurd rituals which define the queen’s day; in one terrific scene, she is left standing naked in front of an increasingly large crowd, the job of dressing her changing hands as various people of higher rank enter the room. “This is ridiculous” she complains when her dresser has finally done her job. “This, madame” replies the stern Comtesse (Judy Davis) “is Versailles”.

The opening section glides by painlessly enough and it features many of these enjoyable moments. As ever, Coppola ensures her film looks great, with Lance Acord’s slick and hazy cinematography perfectly attuned to capturing these minor details. Coppola also secured permission to shoot her film at Versailles and she certainly makes the most of the many gorgeous rooms and spectacular surroundings, with Milena Canonero’s brilliant costume designs filling the screen with colour. Frankly, every shot in this film is beautifully crafted - it really is a feast for the senses - but after a while you start to feel the need for something more nourishing than Coppola’s visual cake, and when you start looking for more meat beneath the film’s glistening surface, there’s absolutely nothing there.

Marie Antoinette is a “poor little rich girl” story in which we never get close to knowing the girl in question. Dunst spends the film giggling and simpering, which works well enough when she’s playing the bemused young girl at the start of the film, but she doesn’t imbue her part with any maturity as the story progresses. The film takes place over some twenty years, but Coppola fudges the chronology into one stodgy mess of storytelling, never giving us a sense of time passing, and the endless fretting over her inability to produce an heir is the closest thing the film has to a narrative thread. In fact, Marie’s baby woes nearly produces the one moment of emotion in the film - when the dauphine’s sister-in-law gave birth before she did, an incident which brought shame upon the royal couple. Marie rushes from the new mother’s bedside to a secluded room and weeps uncontrollably, but then Coppola quickly cuts straight into a breezy montage of Marie and her friends buying shoes and feasting on cakes to the sound of I Want Candy. Why bother crying when a spot of retail therapy will make things better right away?

Yet if Marie doesn’t show any sort emotion, or give us a hint that there’s anything going on in that pretty head of hers, then why should we care about this blank character? At times it seems as if Coppola’s aim with Marie Antoinette is to depict the queen as the celebrity du jour - the Paris Hilton of 18th Century Paris, perhaps. When the notorious (and probably apocryphal) quote of “let them eat cake” is mentioned, Marie says “I would never say that. Don’t they ever get tired of printing these ridiculous stories?”, and she sounds just like any contemporary starlet who has appeared in the gossip columns. But watching Marie Antoinette cavort with her frivolous friends for two hours is every bit as dull as watching Paris Hilton for the same amount of time would be, and no amount of flashy visuals or hip pop music is going to alleviate the gloom which rapidly descends.

What ultimately kills Coppola’s film is the lack of any discernable point. I can sort of see what she was trying to do, placing us completely in Marie Antoinette’s decadent world and therefore letting us be as ignorant of the growing political unrest outside the palace walls as the queen is, but the picture’s shallowness is simply exhausting. It’s an endless, bewildering rush of laughter and shopping, and the revolution appears tacked-on as an afterthought, as if the director was reluctant to interrupt the party. When the end does approach for Marie Antoinette it’s hard to care about the fate awaiting her or anyone else in the picture for that matter - none of them exist as believable characters. The distracting array of contemporary accents constantly prevents us from buying into the film’s milieu (although Marie’s daughter incongruously speaks in French), and whenever we see Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Steve Coogan or Dunst herself, we only see the actors, not the people they’re supposed to be bringing to life.

You might think that making a film about Marie Antoinette without showing a guillotine would be like making a film about Joan of Arc without showing a stake, but Coppola perversely allows Marie to keep her empty head on her shoulders until after the credits roll. The film simply fades into irrelevance, and we wonder what the point of this long two hours was meant to be. By the end of the film, I’m not sure Coppola is even sure of what the film is trying to achieve, and while she has just about gotten away with her shallowness in the past, Marie Antoinette reveals the hollow centre at the core of all her work in embarrassing detail. Potentially, Sofia Coppola is a very talented director, but she won’t be a true filmmaker until she actually has something to say.