A stylish and fascinating film.

James Plath's picture

When you see Sofia Coppola on-set, she looks more like an intern than an acclaimed director who received unprecedented access to film inside the Palace at Versailles because the curator was a huge fan of "Lost in Translation." But the talented Coppola uses her youthfulness to infuse an old genre with a new look and vitality, and to connect with this ill-fated historical figure on a spritely and sensitive personal level.

"Marie Antoinette" is a visual feast, partly because we see Kirsten Dunst walk the same halls and sleep in the same bedchamber as the Queen of France who's perhaps most famous for meeting an untimely death at the hands of French Revolutionists. It turns out, though, that the Queen never said of the starving peasants, "Let them eat cake," and what Coppola does in this film is to attempt a revisionist history, along with giving the period drama a personal, rather than epic treatment. The story is told from Marie Antoinette's point-of-view, which is why we also get an infusion of '80s rock music from time to time. It's how Coppola envisioned the Queen's inner psyche, and a reflection of the lifestyle Marie Antoinette lived-one which Coppola compared to today's rock stars.

The result is certainly applause-worthy. Dunst was well-cast to play the informal and fun-loving Austrian aristocrat who was shipped off to Paris as a teenager for an arranged marriage with Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), the not-terribly-manly grandson of the King (Rip Torn). Young Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a free spirit, a woman raised by aristocrats with egalitarian sensibilities and an absolute indifference to politics and world affairs. Today, her royal family would be considered as having white-collar status but blue-collar tastes, an informal bunch that isn't afraid to hug each other. That's sharply contrasted with the French court and ways. When Marie takes the long coach ride to France in 1768 to meet her intended, she's waylaid at a way station across the border, where she's immediately stripped down, re-dressed and coiffed in the French manner, and even forced to give up the little pug that's been her beloved pet. "If you like dogs, you may have a French dog," she's told by the sour-pussed matron in charge of her transformation. "Everything must be French from now on."

The culture-shock continues when Marie awakens after her first night at the palace to find 20-30 people gathered around her bedside, waiting to watch the daily dressing ritual--a strange custom that awards the privilege of dresses the queen to the highest ranking female member of the French court. "This is ridiculous," Marie says. "Madame," the dour matron replies, "this is Versailles."

The first rock song, "I Want Candy," kicks in around the 56-minute mark. It might have been a shock had we not been prepared for it by a rock-song opening against a black screen and title credits. But after the ridiculousness of the Versailles lifestyle begins to slap Marie Antoinette on the face like a cheap men's after-shave, we get more and more songs that are suggestive of her reaction to the things she sees happening around her. She lived life in a fishbowl, with people monitoring her every movement. What's worse, everyone expected the queen to give France a male heir to the throne, and everyone in court seemed to monitor the couple's love life--or rather, the lack thereof--with the same intensity that sports fans check the scores every day. Louis XVI simply would rather hunt than, er, you know what. And so she has to endure not only an indifferent spouse and seven years of unconsummated marriage, but also the embarrassing fact that everyone in France knows about it and holds her responsible. Even her parents get on her case, fearing that she will be removed if she doesn't hold up her end of the bargain. The problem is her, everyone assumes.

Life becomes even more complicated when the King dies and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette become France's King and Queen. "Dear God, guide us and protect us," Louis prays. "We are too young to rule."

That's pretty much the angle that Antonia Fraser took in her biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, upon which this film is based, and it's the route that Coppola takes. The focus is on her youthfulness, her carefree nature, her need to exist outside of the fishbowl, and her gracefulness coping with situations that would have toppled someone of lesser strength. But she's certainly not lionized. Marie Antoinette is as indifferent to courtly life and the people of France as her husband is to her. Instead of involving herself in the affairs of state, she has her own affair (with a visiting Swedish naval officer) and develops a fondness for gambling, throwing parties and balls, spending time with her ladies-in-waiting at Petit Trianon (a chateau near Versailles that her husband built for her as a retreat) and attending theatrical and operatic performances. She's so self-indulgent that she even sings onstage herself, putting the audience in a position to where they'd better applaud.

Dunst does a fabulous job of portraying the carefree Queen, and while for the most part "Marie Antoinette" is a historical epic that unfolds in a traditional, serious manner, Coppola breathes new life into the genre by telling the story from Marie Antoinette's point of view. There's not much in the way of politics or history (because that's not how Marie saw things) and not much that isn't centered around the Queen (for indeed, it's her world that we see). It's also why the film ends not in 1793, when she was beheaded at the Guillotine, but on June 20, 1791, when she and the royal family left Versailles under cover of night and in disguise. That carriage ride reminds her of the ride that brought her here in the first place, and it's just the type of thing that Marie Antoinette would have noticed. This is a film that makes you feel as if you know more of the truth, now, about a misunderstood historical figure, and that's certainly the result of Coppola's revisionist approach. But if truth be told, the real star of this film is Versailles and all the visual splendor of palace life. We see much more than the perimeter tour of the palace that visitors are given, including rooms the public can't see.

This DVD was mastered in High Definition. Even so, there's an ever-so-slight graininess throughout, especially noticeable in scenes with bright external light. Other than that, the picture is very good, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, which fills out an entire 16x9 television screen. As for color saturation, this one is rich with opulent color, and it brings to vivid life all the costumes and lavish settings.

The audio is English or French Dolby Digital 5.1, and it's difficult to rate because there's so little rear-speaker action. Most of the film is dialogue. But when the rock numbers kick in, you can hear a vibrant bass and a nice balance between the low tones and treble. It's a clear, clean sound, with subtitles in English (CC) and French.

Coppola doesn't like doing commentaries, and so there's just a making-of featurette that shows her and her actors and crew behind the scenes. But we learn an awful lot about the filming in a short amount of time and space, and even get to meet the curator who made it possible for us to see Versailles as the Queen would have. It's interesting to here the film's take on Marie Antoinette: "the Queen as Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, a party girl." There are only two other extras, one of them a throwaway goofball feature with Jason Schwartzman in character giving a supposed "tour" of Versailles. Now, had it been a real tour instead of focusing on Schwartzman mugging for the camera and cutting up as Louis XVI, it might have been a useful feature. But that doesn't happen.

Bottom Line:
Dunst is perfect in the starring role, and Coppola gives us a new take on an old genre. It's not the comic romp with music throughout that "A Knight's Tale" was, but a fairly standard dramatic period film that's made more interesting because of its personal slant. "Marie Antoinette" may not be a sweeping epic and it may not be a dramatic tour de force, but when this one comes out in Blu-ray, it will be worth getting. It's a stylish and fascinating film.


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