The first image in Sofia Coppola’s latest film is of title character, MARIE ANTOINETTE, having a slipper put on her dainty foot by a servant as she dips her finger into the neon-pink icing of a multi-layer cake. She licks her finger, and then turns to look directly into the camera with a wink and wicked grin. This obviously isn’t going to be a traditional history lesson.
Coppola is profoundly blessed by her choice in casting Kirstin Dunst as Marie in this fanciful post-modern retelling of that queen’s saga. Based on Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic book, “Marie Antoinette: The Journey”, Coppola has mixed fact and fiction to create an effective emotional history that ultimately falls apart but has a raucous time before the party ends. Without Dunst, though, and the emotional complexity that she creates, the effort in its entirety would be a brash bit of stunt filmmaking gone wrong. She carries along this witty visual essay on duty versus humanity and decadence versus reality, but even she can’t stop prevent it from falling flat just when it should be hitting its crescendo.
Marie is officially the Dauphine (wife of the heir apparent) at the outset, but in this version of events, she’s the teen queen of France, a dutiful dynastic tool with a tender heart and a husband, the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), who may be the only straight man in the kingdom not attracted to her. She bored by having her every waking moment governed by the stifling etiquette of the French court into which she was plopped in exile from her home in Austria, and acutely aware of her precarious position as failed brood mare for the Bourbons to the consternation of her mother, who shares her deep disappointment in her youngest child with a never ending stream of stern and demoralizing letters reinforced by her caretaker, Abassador Mercy (played with ironic reserve by Steve Coogan). So she does what any rich kid with too much time her hands and precious little self-esteem would do, she piles her hair to dizzying and precarious heights and throws herself into partying, gambling, and shopping, always with a plate of pastel-colored confection near to hand and tears of frustration and self-recrimination bubbling just under the dancing dimples.
The time might be the 18th century, and Coppola might be filming at Versailles itself, but she uses the idioms of the 21st to move things along. An orgy of spending becomes a quick-cut montage with Bow Wow Wow belting out the Kevin Shields remix of “I Want Candy” as shoes, pastries, and a general “let them eat cake” mood prevails, though the film is adamant that our heroine never said that. It was just part of the general slander that met her when she arrived at court, a sequence put together with meticulous care as the unsophisticated girl dressed up for the first time and within an inch of her life in the latest fashions is coldly ogled with elegant disinterest by the gaggle of court members and other hangers-on. Her smile turns from genuine if nervous to frozen in place as she is led through Versailles, and more onlookers, and finally into an imposing room that is as psychically cold as it is opulent, and left by herself, utterly alone in a sea of people who at best don’t look down their noses at her.
Old and new also intersect at a masked ball to which the royal couple has escaped for a night of unstructured fun. A techno beat throbs evoking in the audience the same sort of fluster that a minuet would have had on that pre-revolutionary crowd, but which would play so much differently for modern ears. It’s at that party that Marie begins her flirtation with a dashing Swedish count (played by the impossibly chiseled beauty of Dior model Jaime Dornan), a relationship whose dynamics are never established beyond an initial rush of lust and Coppola’s apparent need to pose Dunst at one point on bed sporting only a fan, stockings, and a come hither look.
Stylistically, the film varies wildely Coppola also indulges her love of letting the camera roll while her actors wander about with nothing much to do. This rarely works, as when Marie and her Versailles clique wander the grounds after a party waiting for the sun to come up. In fact, it works exactly once and involves an elephant. He lolls his trunk all over Schwartzman’s chest as Louis is showing the beast off to Marie’s brother (Danny Huston), who has come from Austria to check on his sister and offer some connubial advice to Louis so that they can start making babies. It is a testament to Schartzman, actor and man, that he handles it with such aplomb. While it is Dunst who walks away with the film, there is much to be said for his performance. As the befuddled royal, he looks at the world with baleful eyes and a body language that bespeaks of a man who knows he is clumsy but is trying very hard to overcome it in as regal a fashion as he can muster. Also noteworthy are Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson as ladies of the court who serve as a veritable Greek chorus dishing gossip and generally telling the temper of the times.
It is as though once Marie has passed from her teenage years, and she and Louis have overcome the whole procreation thing, Coppola has lost whatever spark it was that inspired her as Marie matures and the Bourbon dynasty falls while barely noticing trouble brewing. She is simply marking time during what is the more conventionally dramatic part of the film until the royal family makes its desperate run from Versailles and the proto-revolutionary mob screaming for their blood. There is the mystery of why Marie’s daughter speaks perfect French to her as they wander a garden while Marie continues in perfect, American-accented English. Motifs are repeated towards the end that should appear like a thunderclap of changed circumstances, but instead barely resonate, if at all. It’s a tragically inept finish to a breathtakingly audacious start.