If it was Sofia Coppola’s intent to rehabilitate the image of the allegedly misunderstood Marie Antoinette, then not only has she failed, but with such extraordinary force that the beheaded queen may indeed suffer a further loss of esteem. From all accounts, Coppola sought to portray a naďve young woman as she inhabited a world of privilege and pomp, though with a streak of independence that made her more rebel than royalty. As played (or should I say, inhabited, much as a waxwork) by Kirsten Dunst, she is wide-eyed and a bit unnerved, but full of sass and the need to push beyond the barriers of her time. Or so we’ve been told.
What I saw — amidst the rubble of waste and ineptitude — was a pampered twit from Austria, brought to France as a way to solidify relations between the two nations, only to remain a twit, albeit of a different nationality. Instead of merely wealthy and spoiled, she would be at the right hand of power, and with the death of Louis XV, Queen of France. But a bubblehead she would remain, though it is alleged that she had all the charm and appeal of a rock star. Maybe I’m thinking of another movie altogether.
If I hadn’t read numerous reviews and interviews about the film, I would be forced to conclude that Coppola loathed Antoinette and the very world she represented. There is a claim of sympathy, but it fails to come across in a single frame, unless we are to believe that she is “most alive” because she sleeps with a handsome military officer and dances until dawn. Because she is such a poorly drawn character, I could not fathom what I was supposed to think about this woman, except that she slept a lot, played cards, shopped, and ate heavy desserts whenever prompted. In fact, she does so much eating that the film could slip comfortably into the Food Channel’s prime time lineup without anyone noticing that we had been promised a biopic.
Sure, we understand that the royal court was obsessed (crippled, in a sense) by protocol and ritual, but must we see the same dinner scene no less than five times? In that corner, an orchestra plays. Over there, attendants wait with bated breath. And in the two main chairs, two unhappy people, dressed impeccably, munch quietly on decadent treats. Their conversation is forced, dull, and muffled. Again and again and again we are forced to endure the tedium, as if the point hadn’t been made long before. Surely it is possible to convey boredom and monotony without being boring and monotonous yourself. Perhaps not. Young Sofia doesn’t make me a believer.
The lack of plot or basic structure, while unnerving, need not be fatal, but must always be so when not directed towards a larger point. Unless we are to believe that Coppola is striving for no deeper a theme than the inhumanity of the idle rich (the presses will take note and kindly stop), we watch in horror as the film runs on a mind-numbing loop without a much-needed escape hatch. Antoinette walks, stares off into space, stares again while taking a bath, walks a bit more, gets dressed, dons a wig, feeds her dogs, stands on her balcony, and sits on the grass reading to her friends. As such, there is no real sense of drama or narrative progression, and even when we close in on the French Revolution itself (always in the background, personified by a random mob or shouts in the distance) we don’t really know what the hell is going on.
Neither did Antoinette, of course, and perhaps that is the point, but in order to justify an entire movie devoted to a famous figure’s moment in the sun, it might be a good idea to rattle her empty skull for a thought or two. Instead, there is a single line devoted to her so-called “concern” for the poor, and of course the denial that she ever uttered the infamous line, “Let them eat cake.” Even if we reject the notion that she was 18th century Europe’s stand-in for Barbara Bush, she can hardly be forgiven for fucking, laughing, and sitting for portraits on the taxpayer’s dime. So she didn’t verbalize her arrogant disdain for the people; her life as lived did more than enough damage to warrant a storming of the gates.
As said, Dunst doesn’t act so much as react; that is, she runs the emotional gamut from A to B and strives quite valiantly to convince us that she’s not entirely brain-damaged. Her performance, while being sufficiently immature, lacks all conviction, even down to her flight from Versailles. She’s never been defined, so we don’t really care where the hell she’s going. It’s interesting that Coppola spared us her execution, perhaps knowing that screenings across the country — especially for the critics — would be defined by their riotous applause at having at last witnessed the death of such an empty, heinous woman.
And Jason Schwartzman, while perfectly suited for smarmy assholes and unbearable bastards, is downright laughable as Louis XVI, projecting not a bit of regal bearing or, frankly, acting ability of any kind. Perhaps always being on the verge of hysterics for having secured this part might have something to do with his descent into amateur hour. Or maybe he knew all along that there’d be an eventual downside to nepotism. Worst of all, though, is Rip Torn as Louis XV. Torn is a fine actor, but he’s about the last person you’d want for a period piece set among European royalty. And though he is dying of smallpox, he looks only a bit inconvenienced, rather than ravaged by one of history’s most horrific afflictions.
A bit of intrigue was attempted — Louis XV’s whorish mistress is causing a scandal, and she desperately craves attention from Marie — but it’s just another road to nowhere, causing nary a ripple for the audience members remaining in their seats. And Christ does it keep going, wandering about with a cold repetition that borders on the unbearable. Interestingly, the anachronisms, apparently so distracting to Cannes filmgoers that they brought about boos and catcalls, are remarkably few, limited to the soundtrack and a pair of Chuck Taylors tucked away in the background. Silly and unnecessary, of course, but far from fatal. The shoes, in fact, were part of a far more outrageous sequence that reminded me of the shopping sequence in European Vacation. Again, if it was Coppola’s intention to be lighthearted and fun, then how on earth can she claim that we shouldn’t hate this bitch with a white-hot passion?
Coppola should be partially commended for trying to reinvent the tired genre of historical biography, but it’s hardly progress to trivialize the hell out of the players and the period to such an extent that they become what they most assuredly were not. I imagine this is every teenage girl’s fantasy of the royal life: cute dogs, hunks galore, inhaling plates of food without gaining an ounce, and rock-filled shopping sprees on someone else’s credit card. A life of ease, style, and giggly escape. But if that’s who the filmmakers of today believe should be the icons of tomorrow, then we’re in more trouble than we thought. History is littered with the corpses of thousands of morons who got in over their heads; the vast majority remain justifiably obscure, rather than highlighted by tribute.