"This is ridiculous." "This, Madame, is Versailles."
Dir. Sofia Coppola
[Viewed: From the Couch]
The past couple of years it seems that Cannes is becoming more and more like the Fox News of film festivals. Or maybe it’s just that the American press reports coming out of it are focusing more on knee jerk reactions and bad news is more attractive than good news – anything to make the French seem more pompous – things like that. I don’t know, but Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette probably received the most press at last years Cannes and most of it was debate over whether there was some or a lot of booing, how much or how long the booing lasted, were things being thrown, were effigies being burned, did a riotous mob call for Sofia’s beheading, or was it actually well received and in fact one of the top candidates for the Palm d’Or. It was hard to tell, but after watching it last night, I’d say it was the later.
I’m sure many history buffs and those close to the subject matter at hand here – the rise and fall of Marie-Antoinette and her tenure at Versailles – can find a lot to cringe about, especially if they happen to be French. I’ll be the first to admit that I know little of the facts of Marie’s life so what I saw were the many things that were done right. I remember hearing much talk about inappropriate use of 80s/90s pop music and how the story is more concerned about superficialities, so I approached with caution. But the music actually worked beautifully. (Though I will admit that the middle 20 or so minutes of the film was a bit like one long montage and I’d liked to have more of incidental music that worked so well in the beginning.) And this is a story interested in the absurdity of what went on at Versailles, so the attention to the superficiality and the grand procedure of daily life is part of the point.
What I liked most about Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is the little things. Most of the relationships and character development happen in these beautiful little glancing looks, wordless exchanges, quiet moments that carry great meaning for the characters. Coppola small filmography excels in these kinds of moments and she’s proven herself a master at moving a story and saying a lot with little dialog. Memorable moments off the top of my head: the recurring scenes of Marie and Louis having (I’m guessing) lunch, Marie and her brother, the looks Louis gives Marie at the operas, the walk of shame.
Kirsten Dunst’s acting chops are always being brought into question with each new film she’s in. But I think she more than proves herself up to the challenge – moreso than Jason Schwartzman anyway. They work well together but Schwartzman’s limited number of acting faces tends to get a bit dull at times. He was great as comic relief in the beginning and as Marie’s rock at the end but I can’t help but think someone else could have given a bit more life to the roll. Whereas Dunst does a great job of showing us how Marie aged/matured while at Versailles without the movie relying on makeup or other such tools. I thought she was fantastic. Padraic?
O good, something to disagree about!
Though I may fall into the category of history buff, my objections to the film (and cringes) are not the result of some pedantic objection to artistic license, but rather to the (ahem) artistry itself. Sure, the movie abuses history enough so that justifiably outraged Frenchman appear as rational as the mob that lynched Frankenstein’s monster, or that Austria is portrayed with as much depth and realism as your average kingdom from Middle Earth, but this is fine; I’m not expecting the Cambridge History of Spoiled Habsburg Princesses here.
No, the problem with Marie Antoinette is not that it sacrifices accuracy on the alter of art (though in one howler of a scene, Coppola decides to have the Queen’s mistresses depart Versailles into the sunset; the only problem being that as the horse-drawn carriages recede into the lush backdrop, they are rapidly approaching the grand staircase!), but that Coppola has only two artistic gears, melancholy and revelry. The vast majority of Marie Antoinette consists of Kirsten Dunst being sad, withdrawn, alone or contemplative punctuated by party scenes backed by eighties music. Indeed, it seems at times that the only thing that can cure our young girl’s blues is another one of those splendid Sophia Coppola montages.
And the “little things”? Well yes, Coppola is quite good at those but that is sort of like complementing Michael Bay on his explosions—well done, but we get the point already. The lunch scene was nice the first time, but how many times do we need to see it to understand that our little Dauphine (and the audience) is bored out of her skull? What seems remarkable is that Coppola seems to want us to feel exactly the way a little princess feels (bored, wanting more music, more parties, more corsets, more Swedish soldiers). This is really the only level on which the film works, like a creepy movie about a serial killer that makes you feel just as deranged and disgusted as the main character.
Coppola also fails at subtlety, apparently thinking it synonymous with hushed voices and unintelligible dialogue. While she is able to annoy the audience by preventing the audience from hearing what the characters are saying, she drives home her thematic elements—try to guess!—with a sledgehammer. We are treated to not one, but at least three letters from her mother, Marie Theresa, reminding her of her duty to Austria and commentary ad nuseaum from members of the court that the marriage bonds will not be sealed until she and Louis produce an heir (you can almost hear the tympani pounding away in the background). And even then, after Marie is able to manage a little action from Louis? Well, she gets bored again …oh, and then there is a montage.
After two hours of this, the movie ends with Marie being carted away to her destiny in Paris, with no reference to her eventual fate, save for a not-so-subtle bow to the masses. At the end we still have no better answer to the question posed in the lyrics that open the movie: The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure? One is tempted to scream out, however, to Marie, and to Coppola, and to any other jaded aristocrat with too much time and money on her hands: “hey, try caring about other people, try dedicating yourself to something above and beyond yourself, try looking for something other than pleasure and distraction!” It is possible Coppola will one day have characters who say this but it won’t matter anyway. The audience won’t be able to hear them.
Sean’s Last Words:
I didn’t have any of this “unintelligible dialogue” problem you speak of so I’m not quite sure how to address that. Though I'll stand by my opinion that subtlety is the secret weapon of this movie in both the melancholy and revelry. The "little things" are the subtle glances, the subtle ways relationships are given meaning with little screen time.
I did feel that part of the absurdity which you brought up in your closing paragraph was touched on well in the movie – the people that were supposed to be leading the country back then really had no idea what was going on outside of Versailles. I actually thought it was a pretty interesting idea to have someone thrown into a position of royalty and have them drowned with pleasure and distraction that they can’t possibly object or think of being responsible with their position. The more music and more parties that you speak of was really confined to the first half of the movie – you make it sound a bit like wall to wall montages which, as I tried to point out, it really isn’t. I guess those are the moments that people remember most.
Her mom’s reminders I felt were an apt and probably accurate one – giving birth was all she was brought on board to do and what can be more stressful in that regard than the nagging from your mother. While Sophia Coppola can be faulted for trying to make Marie Antoinette too recognizable and relatable to today’s youth (and for making the movie a bit too long) – the fact that she was brought to France to give someone a kid and then fell into being Queen by a series of unfortunate events, well what’s a girl to do? You can’t really change that fact. She’s been secluded all her life with no idea of what lies beyond the gates. Louis even gives a well-placed line to the effect of, “Shit, what are you guys doing? We’re way too young for this.” Perhaps they didn’t try as hard as they could have to take advantage of their positions but I think that’s a question for a different movie.