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MARIE ANTOINETTE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento
Director: Sofia Coppola
Audio: English, French 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Sony Pictures
Features: Deleted scenes, Making-of featurette, "Cribs with Louis XVI," trailers
Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: February 13, 2007

"This is ridiculous!"

"This, Madame, is Versailles."

Film *** ½

Is there a more accomplished female director in American cinema today than Sofia Coppola?  Despite her relative youth, Coppola has produced to date a remarkable trilogy of feature films exploring the sometimes painful nature of human relationships.  Her directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, dealt with teen angst in an almost dream-like manner, while her acclaimed follow-up Lost in Translation earned numerous accolades for its bittersweet portrayal of one man's midlife crisis.  Both films shared at their core the sense of being out of sorts with one's surroundings, of feeling trapped or helpless to alter one's life in a meaningful manner.

Sofia Coppola's third major film, Marie Antoinette, shares this common theme and is likewise a film about personal angst, albeit of a more classical nature.  Marie Antoinette is, of course, a costume drama, but its similarities to other period pieces mostly end there.  If one were to envision a John Hughes coming-of-age teen flick like Pretty in Pink with a touch of kitsch, superimposed over eighteenth-century France, then one might begin to sense what Sofia Coppola has attempted to accomplish with her highly unusual depiction of the well-known French queen.

The film traces the life of Maria Antonia of Austria from her arrival in France, to her betrothal to the French heir, and finally to her downfall during the opening days of the French Revolution.  When first we are introduced to Maria Antonia, the youngest daughter of Austria's Empress Maria Theresa, she is a carefree teenager with a naïve outlook on worldly matters.  This future Dauphine is more interested in frivolities than affairs of state even as she prepares for the sometimes cruel spectacle of life in the public eye.  Maria Antonia, or Marie Antoinette as she will be known in France, has been promised to Louis-Auguste, grandson of King Louis XV and heir to the throne of France.  This arranged marriage is expected to ensure the preservation of the new but very tenuous Franco-Austrian alliance after decades of bitter mutual conflict.  This marriage, then, is one of honorable duty, not necessarily of love.  But love may come in time, the participants willing.

Historically, Marie Antoinette arrived upon French soil around May 7, 1770 with the ceremonial wedding to the Dauphin of France the following week in the palace of Versailles.  The initial years of the marriage were monotonous and uneventful.  In fact, the impassionate marriage was not unconsummated for several years, due in part to the young couple's sexual inexperience.  When the teenaged Marie Antoinette became Queen of France on May 10, 1774 upon the death of King Louis XV, she was still without child.

The first half of Marie Antoinette recreates this historical context fairly accurately.  It also focuses on young Antoinette's prevailing feeling of  isolation, removed from all her former friends, trapped within the ritualistic confines of the French court and faced with the constricting responsibilities of her position.  Antoinette must try to satisfy the incessantly grating attentions of the headmistress of the household, the Countess de Noailles (Judy Davis), while weathering such courtly gossips as her Aunts-by-marriage Sophie (Shirley Henderson) and Victoire (Molly Shannon) may conjure.  Antoinette must also endure piercing disdain from the Duchesse de Char (Aurore Clément) and, even worse, the old king's personal mistress, Madame du Barry (Italian vamp Asia Argento).

The young Dauphine receives little emotional support from Louis-Auguste, an ineffectual dandy fop more interested in, shall we say, hunting the stag than in performing his royal regime of procreation with the royal wife.  While her husband's attentions linger elsewhere, Antoinette must find some means of solace in the presence of her lady-in-waiting, the effervescent Yolande, the Duchesse de Polignac (Rose Byrne) or the kindly Princesse Thérèse de Lamballe (Mary Nighy), another relation by marriage.  And lest she forget her royal obligations, the Dauphine's loyal advisor, Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan), attends constantly to her well-being and reputation while working diligently to perpetuate the beneficial liaison between France and Austria.

Marie Antoinette's subsequent indulgences in extravagant purchases or a series of masked balls and rave parties, Bourbon-style, one after another, are perhaps a young girl's attempt to retreat from her oppressive world into one of mirth and gaiety.  However much truth or fiction lies in Marie Antoinette's early reputation as a careless spendthrift, the film does not dwell upon.  Whatever Antoinette's excesses are, they diminish with time but never so much so that the public does not begin to harbor resentment towards this Austrian-born usurper to the royal crown.  Unpopular press and fabrications accusing Antoinette of sexual depravities only further diminish her reputation.  Undone by such ill rumors given breadth behind her back, haunted by a sense of isolation that never entirely dissipates, overburdened by the formalities of court, Antoinette is a young woman increasingly at wit's end.  As even the matters of political intrigue begin to unravel, she muses, "Where will I be if there is a rupture between our two families?  Am I to be Austrian or the dauphine of France?"

Marie Antoinette, however improbably so, must be both.  She must attend to the fickle French hoi polloi.  She must help to maintain the unity between France and Austria.  She must please the royal court by producing a proper heir, however clumsy her partner in this duty may be.  Eventually, Antoinette cannot help but to retreat to her private sanctuary of Le Petit Trianon, a small château on the palace grounds far removed from the relentless protocol of court.  Here, she may be mother to her children-to-come and may entertain a passion for music or nature, that she may for a brief instance forget that much which is expected of her.

Much has been made of the rather anachronistic portrayal of Marie Antoinette by All-American girl Kirsten Dunst, who certainly makes little attempt to feign royal mannerisms or even an authentic French accent.  But how better to perpetuate a sense of alienation than by casting a decided non-European actress as the glamorous Queen?  An example of life imitating art by design, perhaps?  Indeed, the film's deliberate cinematography frequently frames Dunst's Marie Antoinette as though she were a lovely bird in a gilded cage.

Still, with all the glamour of its wondrous locales and the undeniable splendour of its costumes, Marie Antoinette is a film threatening at times to crumple under the weight of its own sheer opulence.  The film best succeeds when it forgoes convention plot structure instead for a soothing montage of images, incidental dialogue, and moody music.  Marie Antoinette is a more interesting film when it focuses upon creating an ambiance than narrating a story, a trait it shares with Coppola's previous film, Lost in Translation.  As such, Marie Antoinette should be viewed more as an impressionistic canvas of colors and emotions rather than as a historically accurate biopic.

The first half of Marie Antoinette is a magical panorama of dreamlike sequences and mesmerizing imagery.  Much dramatic tension is derived from Marie Antoinette's attempts to adapt to her new home and to bear an heir for the throne.  But once the children are born by the second half, the film does lose some narrative focus.  The latter half of the film condenses the timeline considerably with large leaps in the narrative from one scene to the next.  A fleeting romance with admirer Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan), some family tragedies, ominous indications of dire times to come - and suddenly the film has arrived at its inevitable conclusion.

This part, we all know.  Louis XVI's decision to support the American Revolution has placed a terrible burden upon France's finances.  An upswelling of anti-royalist sentiments soon arises.  It is the start of the French Revolution, but the subsequent hardships for the royal family are beyond the scope of this film, so Marie Antoinette must end at this point.

Perhaps the film's true journey is one of transformation for the French Queen.  Near the end, there is just enough time for a final lingering glance of Versailles, a final good-bye to that which was once prison but then at last home.  Having found some sense of acceptance and a true sense of home, Marie Antoinette must again sacrifice of herself for the unknown.  Again, she will be removed from friends and family, taken from all that she has known, to be judged again by the protocols of a new court.  Whether she may acquit herself in defense of her actions and deeds, whether she may find some expression of commiseration, who may say?  But these are subjects for another day, another film.

Video *** ½

This solid transfer for Marie Antoinette boasts a whirlwind of vivid colors.  Some nocturnal outdoor scenes are a tad bit hazy, but otherwise this is a fine-looking film with an extraordinarily high eye-candy quotient.

Audio ****

Audio is a very immersive English (or French) 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.

Normally, Sofia Coppola possesses a sound ear for choosing the right mood music to complement her film visuals.  However, she pushes the envelope a bit in Marie Antoinette by mixing 80's pop-lite with period-flavored compositions.  For the most part, this avant-garde experiment works, since much of the modern music is instrumental and enhances the ethereal Wonderland ambiance of Versailles.  There are a few brief instances, however, in which Marie Antoinette resembles an extended music video (mostly during party scenes).

Features * ½

There are two deleted scenes, one a scene at the opera house and the other a scene of Marie Antoinette's return to Versailles from Petit Trianon.  Both scenes reveal some of Antoinette's sense of isolation in France.

"Cribs with Louis XVI" (3 min.) is an irreverent little parody in the style of the MTV show Cribs.  Jason Schwartzman dons his Louis XVI costume while providing a tour of Versailles in a gratingly silly hip-hop tone.

Next is a standard making-of featurette (25 min.).  The cast and crew offer their personal insights into the film, its unique vision, and its luxurious costumes.  They also muse over idiosyncratic director Sofia Coppola, whose famous father is on-hand to offer a comment or two.  Part of this featurette is devoted to the infamous quote "Let them eat cake" (with Kirsten Dunst in a fantasy bathtub scene).

Previews and trailers are included for Spider-Man 3, Premonition, The Holiday, Stranger than Fiction, Dreamland, and Marie Antoinette (and its soundtrack).

Summary:

Marie Antoinette is akin to a highly-stylized, costumed variant on Pretty in (Very Expensive) Pink.  It is a good film, but the quirky, contemporary tone and unconventional narrative may confuse viewers expecting a more standard biopic.

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