Friday, October 20, 2006
whatever! Sofia Coppolas valley girl take on the life of the famous French queen is an easy target for parody but herMarie Antoinette
(opening October 19 in a limited release in San Diego) proves to be surprisingly on the mark at capturing the teen queens point of view.
Sofia Coppola has always had a bit of trouble being taken seriously. She co-wrote a script with her dad Francis Ford Coppola for a segment of New York Stories , and critics called it amateur and inferred that without a famous dad shed never have gotten the script shot. Then Francis had her take on the role meant for Winona Ryder in Godfather III , and critics laughed again calling her acting inept.
When she made her feature writing and directing debut with The Virgin Suicides , some joked that her famous father or her then husband Spike Jonze must have helped her out on the set. Those critics didnt seem to take into account that neither daddy nor her former hubby would have been capable of creating a teenaged girls room with such accurate and telling detail. She finally won some respect with her second feature Lost in Translation , nabbing a scriptwriting Oscar and solid box office returns. Now with her third film, Marie Antoinette , she seems to have opened herself back up to snide comments for her unconventional take on the 18th century Austrian girl who became queen of France.
Coppola proved with The Virgin Suicides that she could accurately convey a teen girls world. She puts that skill to work again with Marie Antoinette . But instead of the dreamy surrealism of 70s suburbia that colored The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette bursts with bright pop colors and contemporary music to convey what it was like to be a fourteen-year-old girl sent off to a foreign land to marry the man designated as the next king of France. If you are expecting a standard historical biography, you will be sorely disappointed. What Coppola delivers is a fresh take on history that makes it come to life in an unexpected way.
Watching Norma Shearer (who at 38 was as old as Marie was when she was guillotined) in the old MGM Marie Antoinette biography, you got absolutely no feel for what it would have been like to be a teenage girl forced to leave her family for a politically arranged marriage in a foreign land. What you did get was a more traditional biography filtered through the Hollywood lens. That film has its own merits and fun not the least of which is the behind the scenes politicking that rivaled the 18th century court intrigue on the screen. But what Coppola does is to make no pretense of delivering a traditional historical biography and that opens the doors to something innovativeshe shows us Versailles filtered through contemporary pop culture, and by so doing she gives us a new and more human look at the legendary French queen.
Coppola, from the very first shot of the young Marie (Kirsten Dunst) staring directly into the camera, announces that the film will be strictly from the perspective of this young girl who was barely a teen when promised in marriage to the Dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman). Marie travels by coach (in a lovely sequence that conveys the long dull ride and what rich young women might do to distract themselves on such a trip) to the border of France and Austria for a ridiculous ceremony where she is literally stripped of everything she has so she can enter France as the new Dauphine. Once at the French court, shes overwhelmed by all the rituals and rules, and soon is made aware of court intrigue and politics as well as the vicious gossip and family infighting. Marie doesnt want to be bothered with reports on affairs of state and shes frustrated by the fact that the Dauphine refuses to consummate their marriage. This leads to various reprimands that she must produce an heir or she might have her marriage annulled and be shipped back to Austria in disgrace. Marie eventually does conceive, and soon becomes Queen of France. Her youthfulness leads to many parties and extravagances that soon draw criticism and make her enemies. The film ends with the French Revolution and the royal family fleeing Versailles. But we dont see her execution by guillotine.
It may not take talent to make Versailles look gorgeous but it does take talent to make the royal palace look and feel lived in and Coppola achieves that. She finds a way to be intimate even in the vast, gorgeous halls of Versailles where the French government gave her permission to film. She finds that intimacy in the way dialogue is whispered and we overhear it as the camera passes by. Or in the way Marie has to run through massive halls before finding a tiny corner to escape to in order to cry. Despite all the anachronisms (contemporary music, Americans playing the French royalty and speaking in contemporary lingo), Coppola does get to some sense of truth in respect to what it might have been like for the young Marie. Coppola pulls off a kind of reverse Clueless. Clueless took Jane Austens 1815 novel Emma and updated it to contemporary times. Coppola, rather than updating Maries story, brings a contemporary feel to 18th century France in order to help audiences identify with the characters. For a good half of the film, Coppola succeeds in pulling this off. She pulls us into Maries world and makes it real in emotional terms even though the films style is anything but realistic. We see Marie not as a distant historical personage but rather as a lost teenager asked to take on a mature role as a world leader too early in life and with little preparation.
The films fault however is its length. It goes on for far too long without adding anything to its initial insights. Once Coppola shows how the teen queen felt she doesnt need to extend the film into Maries later years where nothing new is added and no fresh ground covered. If Coppola could have condensed her film into a trim 90 minutes, it could have been a great work to use to provide a fresh window on history for young students. But at more than two hours, it puts a strain on anyones attention spans. By the end, the film drifts into pretty tableaux that do little more than dazzle the eye.
Marie Antoinette (rated PG-13 for sexual content and partial nudity) wears out its welcome but for about an hour, it delivers a vibrant and clever take on a famous historical figure.
Companion viewing: Marie Antoinette (1938), The Virgin Suicides, Royal Affairs in Versailles
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.