I have to confess that since I visited Paris a couple of years ago, I’ve become slightly obsessed with French history. Sofia Coppola‘s retelling of France’s iconic but ill-fated queen promises a character study of the title role instead of a historical account that led to the fall of Versailles. I have no problem with that, after all I’m not expecting a documentary of the subject. If one actually wants to learn more in depth about French history that’s also visually stunning, there’s a good three-part docs called The Rise & Fall of Versailles on Hulu.
It’s loosely based on the Marie Antoinette biography by Lady Antonia Fraser which reveal the humanity of the French icon. The film opened with the archduchess of Austria at 14, being betrothed to Louis Auguste by her mother Empress Maria Theresa to secure the fragile allegiance between France and Austria. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like for a teenage girl like her to have to part with her family, and her beloved pug, and enter a strange new world on her own. I think the film captured that sense of alienation perfectly, as well as the intense loneliness, not to mention utter bewilderment, of all the new traditions she must quickly become accustomed to. Some of the most amusing scenes pertain to the mystifying traditions at Versailles.
There’s one where the young queen had to be dressed in front of dozens of courtiers. Given that the most important courtier had to dress her, she literally had to stand shivering in the cold room waiting for someone to finally put clothes on her!
Kirsten Dunst was quite mesmerizing in the title role and being that she was Austrian, I thought she looked the part physically. There’s a playfulness as well as fragility in her performance, and despite being in her early 20s at the time, she looked quite believable as a teen. Jason Schwartzman on the other hand, seems miscast here as Louix XVI. He wasn’t given much to do here either, perhaps that’s purposely done to further the sense of estranged marriage between the two.
Some critics have said the film is style over substance and there’s certainly style in abundance. The film is lavish and absolutely gorgeous to look at. I have to admit that the first half hour or so I was marveling at the spectacular set pieces and colorful costumes, but the film grew rather tedious and repetitive that it threatened to grind it to a halt. Coppola seems obsessed with the unconsummated marriage that the scenes of Marie being frustrated in bed is played over and over again. I understand Coppola intended to create an unconventional biopic, and that’s to be commended, but it feels overly indulgent. The young queen might’ve been giddy and frivolous, but it doesn’t mean the film depicting her has to be done in the same way.
“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” (Let them eat cake)
As a character study, I feel that Coppola didn’t really go deep enough into the titular heroine. Marie Antoinette is depicted as a friendly, vivacious and sweet, though like most teen, she has a penchant for gossip and spectacular parties. ‘The Party That Started A Revolution’ one of the film tagline says, and well, the queen sure gave some ridiculously opulent parties in a time where the French citizens were starving. Whether she actually uttered the heartless remark ‘let them eat cake’ had been largely disputed, but she did say that line in this film. There’s perhaps a good five minutes or so devoted to the Revolution, there’s not even a mention of the Guillotine anywhere in the film. By the time the crowds had seized Versailles and the royal family escorted to Paris to await their doomed fate, I felt a tremendous sympathy for the characters, but more because of what I’ve learned in history about them, not necessarily due to their depictions here.
The supporting cast was filled with actors who’ve become quite famous of late, especially Tom Hardy who had basically a cameo here as one of the French aristocrats. The other pretty boy was Jamie Dornan as a French soldier who became Marie Antoinette’s lover Count Axel Fersen. There’s also Rose Byrne as Duchesse de Polignac, the queen’s best friend. Rip Torn played Louis XV here, a role which was apparently offered to French actor Alain Delon, which I think would’ve been perfect. According to IMDb trivia, it has been speculated that Delon did not have confidence in the young American director to do justice to a film on this period of French history.
In any case, the star of this film is definitely Dunst, who carried the film with her charisma. She’s able to convey a variety of emotions throughout and make me sympathize with her despite her obvious flaws. The feeling of total isolation and tremendous pressure of having to produce an heir seemed so unbearable and she conveyed those emotions convincingly.
Technically the movie is a marvel. The cinematography by Lance Acord is simply stunning, a *decadence porn* displaying the most extravagant aristocracy lifestyle in history. I also like the use of contemporary music, as I quite like anachronism in period films when it’s used well. I think Sofia Coppola has been known for having good soundtrack in her movies. This one called Fools Rush In is one of my favorites:
Overall I think Marie Antoinette is a pretty shallow affair, an incomplete and rather unmoving character study that could’ve been much tightly-edited. The film tends to only focus on certain aspects of the character and leave others out, for example the infamous diamond necklace affair that forever tarnished her reputation wasn’t mentioned here. I do think the second half of the film is a bit more interesting as the revolution drew near. I’d still recommend this if you’re into this genre and anything to do with French history. I’d also still applaud Coppola for taking a novel approach to the subject, even if it’s far from being a superior work.
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