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Movie Review: Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola based on the book by Antonia Fraser

I’ve been wanting to see this since the awesome trailer attached to Memoirs of a Geisha last December, a wordless trailer set to the tune of New Order’s “Age of Consent.”  I thought, Sofia Coppola has gone and made a period drama with some modern flair, a la Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet only not so anachronistic. 

My interest in this picture also stems from Coppola’s last film, Lost in Translation.  It’s actually funny to me that I love that movie considering that it violates some of my critical rulebook, especially concerning story.  But the mood of the picture is so warm and comfy, lightly funny, with relaxed performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, I could pop in this movie any time, almost every day, and not get bored.

And that is Coppola’s style.  You see it in The Virgin Suicides as well.  Her style is just mesmerizing, which is why it is completely wrong for an ambitious tale like Marie Antoinette.

Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is an Austrian dutchess about to get into an arranged marriage with France’s dauphin Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, Sofia’s cousin), a match that will unite France and Austria as allies.  Marie must leave all of her Austrian life behind, through the guidance of the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis, stealing every scene she’s in), and there’s no doubt she’s expected to breed as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, Louis is inexperienced and scared, unprepared, unattracted, or gay, whatever you want to infer, and consummation does not occur quickly. 

It doesn’t help that she’s in a sort of race to birth an heir to the throne; Louis XV (Rip Torn), the king, has a mistress, Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), and should that relationship result in a male heir, there might be no need for Marie Antoinette at all.  Things go like this for awhile, then Louis XV dies and his son takes over, and he becomes eager to do whatever his advisors ask; help America with their revolution, finally sleep with his wife.  The excess of Marie Antoinette is given exhaustive detail; the hair, the shoes, the specially-made goodies like pastries, cake, candy, and her sprucing up of Versailles, all of which get blamed for a sweeping poverty that grips the nation to the brink of revolution.

Sofia Coppola does bring in the anachronistic modern soundtrack, which isn’t terribly distracting except in one scene where Antoinette thinks about an American soldier with whom she has an affair.  But I swore Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” should or could have made the cut, because this is what the movie is about.  She’s a young, passionate person who is into art and beauty and not so much pomp and circumstance, and these scenes are where the movie shines. 

Those scenes are few, however, and it is an incomplete life shown here; we don’t see the revolution that ends up sending her to the guillotine (but tons of footage of her routine and her excess).  Worse, Kirsten Dunst, I thought, was terribly wrong for the part.  Let me explain something for a second, this concerns nudity.

It’s difficult to convey this message without sounding like a total horndog.  I admit that I like to see some skin now and again, or rather, all the time.  I have no problem with thespians who don’t want to do nudity.  But, when nudity either seems to matter to the character portrayed or the scene is played in a too-obviously chaste manner, I feel the actor/actress is cheating the character and reality.  Some characters, the lack of nudity seems strangely off-putting, like Jessica Alba’s stripper in Sin City.  Or Ariel in The Little Mermaid.  I jest, of course.  But there are scenes where Dunst is basically telling the audience, I’m not going to be nude; she bathes in a gown, she covers herself up with her arms as noblewomen rush to dress her, remarking, “It’s cold.”  Sure it is. 

When Louis XVI finally decides to bang her, after several million scenes of him rolling over to sleep and having us all wonder whether he’s as queer as that dude from Braveheart, the scene cuts away to Dunst happily landing in a batch of flowers.  It’s a funny scene, representing her sexual liberation, but it’s rather untrue to the part–it didn’t get me emotionally involved. 

And in my roundabout way, this is the crux of my review.  I could not get emotionally involved with Dunst as Antoinette.  There are scenes where she is shown crying; she can’t keep her “Austrian” dog with her at coronation, she doesn’t give birth before someone else in the royal family does.  There’s not enough raw emotion or it’s unconvincing; when actors scrunch up their face and cry, and there’s no tears, I am unmoved.

So Dunst, who has always worked out well in the area of comedy, does her best work when playing the queen with some naughty bad-girl flair, like the scene where they send up the “Let them eat cake” line attributed to her, or the very first scene, which is depicted at the top of this review.  More of that could have gone a long way.  In bits and pieces, Coppola’s vision shines, but it is stripped of any power.  Without Antoinette’s tragic fate, even more so.

As you might can tell from this review, I really, really wanted to like it.  And I thought it was a courageous attempt, but when you can’t believe the actress playing the main part, and you feel like she’s pulling punches, it hurts in a tremendous way.  I hope Dunst can become more comfortable in her skin (and I don’t mean just nudity folks, even though I did rant about it), because I think she does have the capability of pulling it off.  Here, she doesn’t.  And Coppola doesn’t.  Too bad.

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