‘Marie Antoinette’ is Sofia Coppola’s third movie about lonely young women trying to find their way in a difficult world. It is, perhaps, the least successful of the three, however, still manages to entertain and interest with its originality and luscious visuals.
At age 14, Marie Antoinette is sent from her home in Austria to marry Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) of France, primarily to cement an alliance between the two countries. Antoinette’s early days in Versailles are difficult, as she struggles to conform to rigid traditions and protocols, and (at first) unsuccessfully tries to consummate the marriage to her disinterested husband.
Eventually, Antoinette adapts to life in France. She acquires an entourage of close friends, attends operas and balls, bears two children, establishes a country house, takes a lover, and becomes Queen.
Beyond this, there is little plot to ‘Marie Antoinette’. There is no scandal or political intrigue, and few references to life beyond the walls of Versailles. We view the world as Marie Antoinette might have seen it, protected (or suffocated) by her life of privilege. This approach is a good from a psychological viewpoint, as it helps us understand how Marie’s character might have evolved, but it makes for slow cinema.
In her previous movies, Coppola has successfully employed subtleties (minimal dialogue, environment, long moments of silence) to develop character and plot, and heighten sexual tension. But without a relationship like Bob and Charlotte’s in ‘Lost In Translation’ these subtleties only serve to highlight the current film’s ponderous pace.
Coppola’s other signature device – her use of popular music – is another that does not work so well in ‘Marie Antoinette’. While the likes of Air, My Bloody Valentine, Jesus And Mary Chain and Phoenix might have fit in perfectly with 70s America or 00s Tokyo, the use of post-punk and punk music in ‘Marie Antoinette’ is a little puzzling. I’m quite happy to spend all day listening to Gang of Four, The Cure, Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but I’m not sure what it’s doing in a film about an 18th Century monarch. Other reviewers have suggested that the music reflects the hedonism of the time, but that doesn’t ring true for me. Punk music was born out a reaction against hedonism and excess, and contained a greater social and political awareness than previous pop music forms. A more appropriate music might have been 70s disco?
The cast is uniformly good. In the central role, Kirsten Dunst is radiant as Marie Antoinette. Strong support comes from Jason Schwartzman as her clueless husband, Rip Torn as the randy Louis XV, and Judy Davis as the Contesse de Noailles, while Steve Coogan, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Marianne Faithfull and Shirley Henderson have smaller roles.
As previously suggested, ‘Marie Antoinette’ is not an overwhelming success. It is beautiful to look at, amusing and moving at times, but not entirely satisfying. However, it does paint an empathetic, and ultimately poignant portrait of a young woman taken from her home and transplanted into a world where her every word and action is examined and criticised.