I have talked about this before, but Sofia Coppola's new film "Marie Antoinette" prompts me to revisit the subject. When a filmmaker creates a successful film, they earn a certain amount of cache. Imagine they receive a credit card. If the film is both financially and critically successful, they earn a higher credit balance. They can then use this credit card for their next film. The amount of credit they spend on their next project would depend on the esoteric quality of the film. Then, based on the success of that film, their credit card either has a revolving balance or a fixed spending limit.
Sofia Coppola had a big success on her hands with "Lost in Translation", her first film. It almost earned Bill Murray an Oscar, made a star of Scarlett Johannson and earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Coppola. Then, she decided to make "Maria Antoinette". I suspect her credit balance is very low.
On paper, "Marie Antoinette" sounds like an intriguing project. An American director shooting a film about an Icon of French History, in Versailles, with a rising American actress and a largely American and British cast. Throw in some modern music and great costumes and you have the concept behind Coppola's newest film.
On the screen, "Marie" lacks substance. There is a ton of great production design, but that is like frosting on a cake. It looks good, and tastes good, but it doesn't provide a lot of substance.
At 14, Marie (Kirsten Dunst), an Austrian princess, is sent to France to marry the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman). Initially, she is very confused and feels isolated, but her mother pleads with her to make the best of the situation, for her home country. The King (Rip Torn) takes a liking to the young lady, but there is trouble in the marriage bed. The Dauphin is very scared of his new wife and it takes seven years for them to consummate the marriage. During this time, the gossip in the court of Versailles is rampant. Why can't she produce an heir to the throne? Is she barren? Would she prefer some strudel? Finally, a daughter is born and then, soon, a son and an heir to the throne. Then, the King dies and the Dauphin becomes King Louis XVI. And Marie, the new Queen of France, goes on a spending spree, cavorting with her friends, buying new clothes and shoes with every turn. As the French people fight for every scrap of food, the Queen's excess comes to notice and they start to protest.
There are moments in "Marie Antoinette" that reminded me of some of the films of the 70s. There are long sequences meant to establish a mood, rather than to depict a specific part of history. During these sequences, we see Marie running through fields with her daughter, brushing her cheek, reveling in motherhood at long last. Or she lays in a rowboat with other friends, on a lazy, sunny afternoon. Or she runs excitedly through the hallways of Versailles.
This style of filmmaking is interesting and uncommon in this day and age, but it takes some getting used to. You either have to be able to figure out what the director is trying to accomplish or let your imagination run wild.
The other problem is that these same sequences often resemble Nivea, perfume or female medication ads. The sun sparkling in Dunst's hair as she runs through fields of wildflowers. Marie Antoinette just has to take one pill for a problem free month.
And because there are multiple scenes like this, it makes the film seem long and without substance.
There are better scenes depicting the excess of life in the Court of Versailles, the gossiping among the ruling class and more, but these don't fill the story.
The performances are interesting. Dunst does a good job of conveying Marie Antoinette's confusion, then boredom, then sexual attraction. But we don't really get a look inside her head. Maybe that's the point. Because she lived in such excess, and the court lived in such seclusion, maybe that is all we are supposed to see. We see her eat a lot of expensive food, try on a lot of shoes, the like. She mentions a couple of times that she would like to go to Paris, to the Opera, but the family lives at Versailles and rarely ventures outside.
This is also a key point in the history of France. Because the ruling family is so isolated, it is difficult for them to understand the difficulties of their people. We get it. And from the way the film portrays her, Marie Antoinette didn't seem to care very much. But we never see what the people are doing, what their struggle is like. A couple of advisors make some vague statements, but this is the extent of the influence from the outside world.
The other interesting addition is the use of modern day music. This has been done before, in “A Knight’s Tale” and “Moulin Rouge”, to name two memorable examples. In “A Knight’s Tale”, the music was more pervasive but never really worked, except for the use of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. In “Moulin Rouge”, director Baz Luhrmann fully integrated modern day music into his tale of a doomed relationship set in Paris during the early 1900s. Coppola doesn’t use enough music to make it part of the fabric of the film. Because she uses so little music, it stands out all the more, making it seem odd and out of place. For this reason, her effort is more similar to the dreadful “A Knight’s Tale” than the sublime “Moulin Rouge”.
It seems like if we are going to watch a film depicting Marie Antoinette’s life, we need to learn something about her, see her in a different light, or learn about the other influences on her life. Because she and the rest of her family live in such isolation, it is difficult for us to see beyond that as well.
And because we are looking for something more, and the film doesn’t deliver this, our sugar high is quite brief indeed.
I just wish I had been allowed to eat more cake.