Having it, eating it
The great historian Barbara W. Tuchman once wrote that we study history precisely because the past and its people are so different from ourselves and our times; when we find things we can recognize in such utterly alien surroundings, it tells us something permanent about ourselves and the human condition. In the new movie Marie Antoinette, writer-director Sofia Coppola apparently wants to reverse the process: She applies a 21st-century youth sensibility to the story of King Louis XVI’s doomed queen, hoping it will tell us something of value about court life in 18th-century France.
Coppola trumpets her concept right off the bat. The opening credits are printed hot pink on black, like the cover of J-14 or Cosmo Girl, between glimpses of Kirsten Dunst reclining in white stockings, a pink lace fan coyly covering her bare midsection—all to the head-banging accompaniment of Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It.” Dunst plays the movie’s title character, and, once things get properly under way, we follow her from 1768, when the movie tells us she left her native Austria to marry Prince Louis of France (in fact, it was 1770), until the royal family left Versailles in the teeth of the French Revolution (the movie doesn’t say, but the fadeout presumably comes as they set out on their ill-fated 1791 flight to Varennes in an attempt to get out of the country).
In between, Coppola gives us Marie Antoinette as a teenage naïf squirming under the stifling protocol of the French court; being gossiped about behind her back as she tries to navigate through the cliques at her new school—oops, I mean palace; and trying anything she can think of to interest her new hubby (Jason Schwartzman) in consummating their marriage. You know, the sort of thing any Lindsay Lohan fan can really relate to.
Marie Antoinette is luscious to behold, though that’s probably a given for a movie that’s set in an age when people dressed like walking wedding cakes. The soundtrack, bristling with tracks by Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure and Bow Wow Wow, is a little disconcerting at times, but not as much as you might expect. Nor does Coppola try for the ironic flippancy of a movie like A Knight’s Tale as her French aristos cavort to “I Want Candy.” Her methods may be outré, but her purpose is serious, and the boos and catcalls that greeted Marie Antoinette when it premiered at Cannes seem unduly harsh (but then, the French have always been protective of their martyrs).
Still, just because her purpose is serious doesn’t mean she succeeds, or that the effort is a worthy one. Unfortunately for the movie’s cheeky concept, turning Marie Antoinette and her courtiers into vallée girls hanging around the Versailles Pointe Mall in panniers and powdered wigs, dishing on the dorks and squealing over the latest shoes, doesn’t say anything about the human condition or humanize the characters. In fact, it trivializes them. That is, it turns them into trivial constructs; if Coppola is trying to say that the people themselves were trivial, she’s not doing it.
Subtleties of history and psychology are glossed over in deference to the movie’s teenybopper sensibilities. The Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s great friend (who also may have been her lover), is reduced to the role of boy toy for a brief dalliance to the tune of “Fools Rush In.” When one of the royal children dies, we have so little sense of the family that we don’t even know which one it is (in fact, the king and queen lost two), and their grief fails to resonate.
Finally, Coppola concludes her story just as the Revolution is getting ugly, as if to deny that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette’s life was the manner of her leaving it. To take this sad, lonely woman all the way to the guillotine would have shown us how she bore humiliation and death with tragic dignity, but that would have meant letting the character grow up. Instead, Dunst remains pert and saucy, looking virtually the same at the end of the movie as she did at the beginning, 20-plus years earlier. It’s as if Coppola can’t bear to take her protagonist out of an extended phase of pampered adolescence. The older, sadder Marie Antoinette gets short shrift from Coppola. Maybe she wasn’t interested—or maybe she just figured her audience isn’t.