Marie Antoinette Movie Review
Review written by Nathan Vass
If you've followed Sofia Coppola's work, you've probably noticed that she seems loathe to discuss the meanings of her films in interviews. By way of explanation, I'd like to offer the following Francois Happe quote: "Talking implies a kind of instantaneousness which forces the [artist] to simplify the complex and, to a certain extent, negate the elaborateness of his fictional construction." Sofia Coppola's films transcend the verbal, and seek to reach the viewer in ways possible only in the film format- using visuals and music to communicate feelings, atmospheres, and moods that are beyond words. If you've seen Lost in Translation, or any Terrence Malick movies, then you know what I'm talking about. Lost in Translation was about the inability to deeply communicate, that feeling of displacement, of not having direction in life- essentially, things that we all experience, but have difficulty talking about clearly. Marie Antoinette is another exploration into this more ethereal breed of filmmaking. It is not as hypnotic as the films mentioned above, but that is no fault of the filmmakers; rather, it's because the chosen subject matter doesn't lend itself to entertainment easily. You can't make a film about confinement and utter boredom very exciting to watch.
For those not in the know, Marie Antoinette is the latest effort from writer-director Sofia Coppola, and it concerns a crucial period in the young life of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) of Austria, who married King Louis XVI of France (Jason Schwartzman), according to the wishes of her parents, who wished to form an alliance between their respective countries. Of course, coming from the director The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, it's no surprise that the movie itself isn't at all concerned with offering dry historical reenactments and stodgy period-piece fodder. This isn't a film for those interested in history, but for those interested in human nature.
The film begins with loud, pulsing rock music against a black screen with pink intertitles. This is not your typical period picture. Marie's first line of dialogue, which takes place after a long journey to her husband-to-be, is: "Are we there yet?" The cast includes Asia Argento (XXX) and Rip Torn as Louis XV. Despite all this, the film isn't so much a statement against period films as it is an exploration into the world those films often only depict on a superficial level. With this film, Coppola posits that people of earlier eras acted like real human beings- sentient and aware, with the same general desires and emotions we experience today. We're quite used to films where historical figures bark out epigrammatic phrases as if they know they'll end up in Bartlett's. To see Marie Antoinette is to realize that a great many films set in the 18th-19th centuries deviate significantly from the way people really interact, in any era. In Marie Antoinette, we see characters who think quickly, complain, get bored, have a sense of humor, and are just as perceptive of the oddness of their societal customs as we are of ours today. Many scenes are apparently lit with natural light, a technique used to great effect in Malick's The New World, and this adds to the casual immediacy of the proceedings.
Fans of Coppola's work know that her previous films are not plot-based, but rooted in character and mood. The same is true here. The film begins with the moments just before the marriage of Antoinette and Louis XVI, and ends several years later, much before Antoinette's famed execution by guillotine. The vast majority of the runtime is spent observing Antoinette's induction into the absurdly rigid lifestyle of the French royal court, and charting her attempts to find happiness in a world where there is nothing fulfilling to do, and where all those around her despise her. Her marriage with Louis, portrayed here as a young, intensely shy introvert, was arranged for the sole purpose of creating an international "alliance"- that is, an heir. Antoinette is under enormous pressure to have a son, and every morning she faces the world as a nonpregnant woman, she is seen as an abject failure. Her world is a very restricted one; she is trapped in more ways than one, and she has no close companions she can confide in.
Dunst's performance is sublime, and easily the best of her career. She conveys the effervescent qualities of a young girl trying not to deal with the loss and pain around her with beautiful restraint and understatement. I suspect that she will be ignored come Oscar time; subtle performances like this are too often overlooked. Her character seeks refuge from her life by submersing herself in superficial, but not damaging, diversions- namely, shoes, candy, clothing, and puppies. Like all teenagers, she finds a release in shoving her problems aside and hoping they'll go away by morning. However, this Marie Antoinette is not empty-headed. She yearns for some form of deep fulfillment. Coppola and Dunst are able to communicate that there is much more going on beneath the surface, without ever explicitly stating anything. The devastating last line of the film reveals just how perceptive she really is of her situation. Coppola's simultaneously muted and unmistakable direction is always a unique pleasure to watch. Her sensibilities are so far away from the masculine tendencies of most directors today. It's refreshing to see a film- that is, a world- through a woman's eyes. Particularly deserving of mention is her use of music. The presence of contemporary rock songs in no way distracts from the events onscreen; surprisingly, they fit in perfectly well. The various genres of music seem to grow out of the image, and go a long way in communicating various moods.
Some have dismissed the film for not dealing with the historically important passages in Marie Antoinette's life, complaining that Coppola ignores historical context, but to do so is to miss the point- the film is not about specifics, but about much larger universal truths. To have the movie be about Antoinette's execution and her various trials with the public would reduce the film to a peripherally interesting piece about an abstract historical figure. Coppola is going for much more immediate and personally relevant themes- the loneliness of youth, the struggle to feel respected, and the desire for spiritual fulfillment, among other things. By having the film take place in another era, these themes are amplified, as they become the aspects of the film the viewer finds most familiar.
Marie Antoinette will only work for some people. Half of the audience at my screening clapped emphatically when it was over, and half didn't. The film offers no resolution, no traditional structure, no villain, no clarification, and only a hint of narrative. As usual, the joys of this Sofia Coppola picture are not literal, but sublime. It's what the characters don't say that she wants us to think about. Don't watch this movie; just let it roll over you. It's not a story, but an experience. Ignore my B+ rating; that's just a compromise between how I felt about the movie when I saw it and how I feel about it now. This is a film that lingers in the mind. What it all comes down to is, that some of us have had the life experiences that allow us to identify with what Coppola is depicting, and some of us haven't. It has nothing to do with intellect. I suggest checking the film out. Maybe it'll work for you, and you'll love it, or maybe you won't. At the very least, you'll laugh at the funny parts.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.