The best review for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette might possibly be its most concise review: “Destined to be misunderstood.”
With forthcoming release of Marie Antoinette on DVD just around the corner (Feb. 13), filmgoers who missed Coppola’s beautifully executed rumination on the life of Marie Antoinette will get a second chance to experience what A.O. Scott so accurately articulates in his four-letter review from the New York Times.
Which is not to say that said filmgoers have not missed out in failing to experience Marie Antoinette on the big screen: it is, first and foremost, a sumptuous film that yields an experience more akin to strolling through an art gallery than sitting in a movie theater. Indeed, Marie Antoinette is a film capable of breathing new life into old clichés: it reminds us why we go to the movie theater.
Though snubbed in more closely watched categories, the film has unsurprisingly garnered an Oscar nod for Best Achievement in Costume (Milena Canonero). One is immediately struck by the unrelenting beauty of Coppola’s vision of Versailles, which transgresses the boundaries of historical accuracy to accomplish its remarkable aesthetic achievement. Shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik, pastries by Ladurée, a soundtrack packed with the low-fi predecessors of today’s art rock-despite the film being shot at Versailles, such accoutrements skew the film towards imaginative musing.
Mr. Scott’s prediction for the way in which Marie Antoinette will likely continue to be received is appropriate. The subject of the film is perhaps one of history’s most misunderstood. What you can call to mind about the French queen is most likely false, almost by virtue of your being able to recall it. Marie Antoinette’s sexual deviancy, her disregard for the poor, her unrelenting allegiance to Austria at the expense of France-all are dashed in the process of Coppola’s enterprise.
But Coppola’s rendering does not offer clear-cut repudiation; she is not content to merely vilify the misunderstood queen. Her process reflects her subject, thus inviting misunderstanding from audiences more accustomed to bland bio-pics like Ray and Walk The Line.
Rather than producing a sprawling Bourbon epic, Coppola spins a sort of mixed tape, sampling some of the most notorious incidences from Antoine’s life and exposing them as malicious libel. Cleverly enough, promotional posters for Marie Antoinette were emblazoned with the tag line, “Let Them Eat Cake.” The line, perhaps the queen’s best known, is completely apocryphal. Viewed from the perspective of Marie Antoinette herself, the collective scenes form an incisive commentary on the degree to which propaganda, hearsay, and slander can metastasize into collective memory.
The film is not without fault. Coppola struggled with the script to such a degree that she took on another project (the critically-acclaimed Lost in Translation) during the writing of Marie Antoinette. As the film progresses and the cast of characters grows, such struggle is evident in Coppola’s inability to manage the expanding narrative. The result is revisionism so bold as to leave out one of Marie Antoinette’s ill-fated children, an omission that serves only to blunt the emotional capacity of the character.
Nevertheless, Kirsten Dunst’s deft performance conveys both the grace with which Marie Antoinette first absorbed such attacks and the stifled desperation that the queen’s life would become in the face of torrential abuse. This performance (as well as others) coalesces with Coppola’s truly unique vision to produce a rare result in contemporary film: a cinematic experience that is intelligently post-modern, visually stunning, and profoundly human.