An Unconventional, Beautiful, Lively Biopic
In Marie Antoinette (2006), writer-director Sofia Coppola invites us to join her in an attempt to get inside the head of the iconic title character. The legendary French queen (1755-1793) is engagingly played by Kirsten Dunst. The movie is based on the best-selling book Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser.
Coppola has created a lively adaptation of Fraser's book that avoids the stuffiness of most period dramas. The film, which features extensive location shooting at Versailles, is lushly cinematic with colorful and opulent costuming and set dressing. The movie is given an energy boost by its use of music from the 1980s and later—numbers like Gang of Four's "Natural's Not in It" and Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy."
Dunst is in nearly every scene, and she is ably supported by an unexpected group of actors that includes Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Danny Huston and Steve Coogan. The dialogue generally sounds like a potpourri of modern-day Americans and Brits talking, sprinkling their conversation here and there with a thickly accented French word or two. For good measure a couple of French actors, including Aurore Clement, are thrown into the mix.
Movie's Fluffy Surface Belies Its Underlying Seriousness
Coppola deliberately imposed a sensibility on Marie Antoinette that is in many ways closer to 1980s Southern California than to late 18th-century France. This is on balance a good thing because it makes the film a personal statement by the filmmaker and it makes the story more accessible to present-day viewers.
The film delivers some important history lessons, although it candy-coats them. The depiction of the decadence of the royal court at Versailles helps us grasp why the era of absolute monarchies came to an end in Western civilization. Also, the French Revolution was one of the great cataclysmic events in world history, and most of us have somehow gotten the notion that Marie Antoinette provoked it. Now comes along this movie that humanizes a famous historical figure who has traditionally been demonized. These are big ideas, yet the film never feels didactic. Instead, Coppola has given us a movie that is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.
A Teenage Girl at Versailles
The first hour and a quarter of Marie Antoinette, during which the protagonist is a teenager, is the most memorable part of the movie. There's a dazzling masked ball where the guests dance to "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. At the ball, Marie Antoinette falls for a dashing Swedish count, and on the way home she looks dreamily out the carriage window as the soundtrack plays "Fools Rush In" by Bow Wow Wow. Later, there's a beautiful sequence where she and others watch the sunrise at Versailles while sipping champagne.
The life Marie Antoinette led as a teenager was extraordinary, and the film does a terrific job of showing that. At age 14 she is brought from Austria to France, where she enters into an arranged marriage with the heir to the throne. When she is about 18, her husband is crowned Louis XVI, and she becomes queen of France. The movie depicts the teenage Marie Antoinette as living a life of ostentatious extravagance.
Versailles remains to this day a mindblower of a place, and the location shooting there enormously enriches Marie Antoinette. The film recreates a version of Versailles in its heyday where aristocrats enjoy a luxurious lifestyle almost completely divorced from everyday reality. As portrayed in the movie, 1770s Versailles is not just a place, it's a state of mind. When a teenage foreigner is thrust into this strange world, the experience inevitably shapes her life.
Motherhood and Heartbreak
The final 40 minutes of the film covers Marie Antoinette's life from her early twenties to age 35. In terms of story, the central character is shown to change. However, this part of the movie sometimes feels rushed, and some of the events are not given time to resonate.
Marie Antoinette has children, and she begins to live a quieter life. She hangs out with her inner circle at a smallish chateau known as the Petit Trianon and putters around on an ersatz little farm. Although she is no longer into diamonds, fancy clothes and partying, she still comes across as frivolous.
As Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's royal court live their pampered, self-absorbed lives, the general populace becomes outraged at the nation's poor economic conditions, precipitating the French Revolution. In October of 1789 an angry mob forces the king and queen to leave Versailles forever. The film's last shot is of the royal bedchamber after it has been trashed.
As far as Coppola is concerned, the story she wanted to tell is over when Marie Antoinette departs Versailles. But Fraser's book goes on to detail the four miserable years Marie Antoinette spent as a captive of the revolutionaries until she was beheaded.
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