What does one get when one combines postmodern pop sensibility, French Nouvelle Vague philosophies and eighties new wave music and pour it all into an 18th century period piece already stuffed fat and full with ravishing costumes, luscious set pieces and sexually decadent behaviour? One gets Sofia Coppola's best film yet!
Opening with a wink and a nod, and full of candy-coloured confections of awkward yet graceful charm and wry wit, Marie Antoinette perhaps is not as surfacely deep as her two earlier films, but it does share with her predecessors a claustrophobic sense of entrapment and unheeded privilege. Like Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte in Lost in Translation, afraid to venture pass the lobby of her plush Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Kirsten Dunst herself as Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides, a languorous kitten trapped by society inside her own imagined world, Marie, just fourteen when sent to marry the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, is like a lost little bird trapped inside the gilded cage that is Versailles. These girls, squelched by the strangulation of privilege, are what Coppola does best - for obvious autobiographical reasons - and she does it with her most grandiose hand yet in Marie Antoinette. Do not let yourself be fooled, for this is not your mother's historical biopic - it is frivolity underscored with seriousness.
Instead of faking the mannersims of a staunchy haughty period piece - so overblown by many a great director in the past - Coppola sends Dunst out with the voice of a mall queen with daddy's credit card in her Prada bag - princess of the all-nite rave. Many critics have said Coppola and Dunst portray the teen queen as an 18th century Paris Hilton - and this is probably true on many fronts - but they also show that being Paris Hilton (or any other rich bitch prima donna) may not be all that great a thing to be after all - you just might lose your head over it.
Full of music two hundred years out of time, this pomo set piece plays out as if The Cure or New Order are perfectly in sync with an 18th century masqued ball or a royal coronation. One number in particular, Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy booms across the soundtrack as Marie and her ladies-in-waiting go on a shopping spree full of decadent wardrobes, delicious shoes (including a pair of purple Converse snuck in for flair) and resplendantly ridiculous hairstyles - never once seeming out of place. The modern music and period setting may be rather similar in vein to the films of Baz Luhrmann, but Coppola manages to weave her way past the overly trite style of a film like Moulin Rouge and belts out a film not only full of magniloquence and pretty party pieces, but also of a subtly meaty political underpining beneath the pink frosted exterior that is this pop star Versailles.
Peripherally responsible for the starvation of France which in turn led to the French Revolution which in turn led to the beheading of both Antoinette and Louis XVI, Coppola's queen is played more for sympathy than sneer (which assuredly led to the few boo's it recieved from the Cannes balconies). Showing instead, Marie Antoinette as an apathetic hautier that more likely than not never even came into contact with the "people of France" let alone was in any capable state to rule them. The scapegoat of history - her crime being perhaps more an innocent indifference than a calculated reign of terror - Marie Antoinette was more the giggling schoolgirl of privilege than anything else. Not that this is any excuse for what the French citizenry endured during those days before the revolution (remember when George Bush the Father could not even fathom a guess on how much a quart of milk cost?), but it is most likely the most accurate way to look at this child queen.
Even the surely apocryphal "let them eat cake" quote (the comment that launched a thousand guillotines) is played at by Coppola as if it were a snide little remark to be manipulated and teased - and Dunst's Marie, a pretty powdered present from Austria to France is commented on as "a piece of cake" early on in the film. All this leading to a pop film that seems at first glance nothing more than confectionary sugar and pink and blue sprinkles, but on deeper reflection can be seen as a politically charged dress-up film of revolutionary standards. A film that is set between 1765 and 1793 with music from 1980 through 1985 and is postmodern enough to have the heart of the cinematic future beating beneath its ostentatious chest.
Finally, in the end, although we all know the outcome (and if you do not then read a book once and a while) we still feel a kind of sadness at this fall of eden - a child's eden at that. [10/12/06]