Film review of "Marie-Antionette"
|To Behead or Behold?
Sofia Coppola delves into the indulgent life of the infamous final queen of France in a rich and lavish biopic.
Marie-Antoinette (123 mins, 12A) Directed by Sofia Coppola; starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Judy Davis.
This film arrives as the fifth instalment of Sofia Coppola’s directing career. Part of the Hollywood Coppola clan, she was born and raised amongst actors and film-makers, and followed an unimpressive acting career before turning director in the footsteps of her father, Francis Ford Coppola of The Godfather fame. Marie-Antoinette, itself a family affair, follows Coppola’s Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003), two thought-provoking, almost depressing whirlwinds which, although appear stark contrasts to this recent biopic on the surface, display a similar bleakness and despair underneath.
Marie-Antoinette is based on the similarly compassionate revisionist biography of the French queen, “Marie-Antoinette: The Journey” by Lady Antonia Fraser, but does not cover the whole of the controversial monarch’s short life, unlike W. S. Van Dyke’s 1938 take on the queen’s ill-fated existence.
Although most biopic films such as this focus on the main events of the subject’s life, Marie-Antoinette is different in that it cleaves a different path. Coppola chooses to end the story before the most major trials of Marie-Antoinette’s life have begun. These tests of her willpower and beliefs occur primarily during the French Revolution, in which she became infamous as King Louis XVI’s “puppeteer”, influencing him against the suffering French public. Instead of presenting the young Queen as the target of the French people’s loathing and distrust, (“L’Autruchienne”) Coppola’s sympathetic portrayal of Marie-Antoinette revolves around the queen’s more personal struggles, from the delayed consummation of her marriage to attempts to blend into her unwelcoming surroundings to which she so clearly does not belong.
The film begins with the betrothal of the 15-year old Austrian Archduchess Marie-Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) to Louis Auguste, the Dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman). Detached from her family, possessions and familiar Austrian customs and packed off to France like a lamb to the slaughter, we follow her entrance into the French court where her life of excess gathers pace and her notoriety rockets. In the splendid prison of Versailles, she must accommodate herself in a place when no one trusts her as a foreigner. Forced to eat, dress and relax in front of hundreds of austere nobles every day, the queen finds it difficult to conform. With the formation of close friendships with the Princesse de Lamballe (Mary Nighy) and the Duchesse de Polignac (Rose Byrne), however, she eventually slips into life as a French monarch and embarks on her extravagant lifestyle of riches and partying, punctuated by the monarchical pressures to produce a male heir and keep Austrian interests alive.
The odd flash of electric lights, trail of aeroplane smoke or even sight of blue converse sports shoes (which Coppola insists are a deliberate representation of the Queen’s teenage youth) are not worth losing your head over; however, the straying from historical fact is perhaps the film’s most frustrating faux pas. While inaccurate allusions are made, a son is seemingly forgotten and a party is attended in a building non-existent in the eighteenth century. The film, as a personification of the rebellious queen herself does not stray from historical evidence - it audaciously runs.
The pièce de résistance of the film is the unrelenting decadence of the settings and costumes throughout, in true Luhrmann style. The sets are breathtakingly luxurious and thoroughly impressive, as Versailles is shown in all its former glory. Each shot is a visual gem; every scene a lesson in French colonial style. Meal times come complete with Thiebaud-esque feasts to make the mouth water while the Ladurée cakes and pastries particularly enjoyed by the young queen are equally exquisite, adding to the intricate detailing which provides such a mouth-wateringly multi-coloured banquet for the eye.
Just as splendid are the costumes presented in this world of decadence and ironically unrestricted wealth. Costume designer Milena Canonero expertly recreates the elaborate fashions of the eighteenth century as well as the chicly sartorial designs preferred by Marie-Antoinette herself. These costumes act as an embellished catalyst for the insightful portrayal of Marie-Antoinette as the excited teenager she really was, and offer an original parallel to modern teenagers who are equally fascinated with new fashions and trends. This reminder of the queen’s tender age is effective, showing the thought behind Coppola’s empathy. This idea of youth contrasted with great responsibility; of adolescence against a background of formality, is further represented through the music played during the film, which arranges contemporary punk rock with Baroque Rameau pieces to boost Coppola’s modern twist and interpretation.
“Is it too much…?”
The overall atmosphere of the film is one of absolute indulgence and frivolity, fuelled by the excessive nature of the juvenile monarch. Like a child in a royal sweet shop, the famous hedonism of the queen is conveyed beautifully, while the skilful filming full of panning and wide-angle shots shows the loneliness and discomfort of the newly instated queen in the vast grandeur of the royal court at Versailles. Bright and busy, where previously misconstrued as dark and scheming, Marie-Antoinette is played by Dunst in a refreshing manner, both responsible yet frivolous, determined yet outgoing. It is particularly the awkwardness of the queen that Dunst captures so well, conveying the discomfort and repetitive rhythm of life as a dauphine, which history as a rhetorician so often represses. She raises the game for this film, Coppola morphing her from teen movie queen to a queen of a completely different kind. Parfait. Equally as triumphant is the partnership of Rip Torn and Asia Argento as Louis XV and his mistress - the fiery Comtesse du Barry. Teasing and fundamentally controversial, they provide the saucily stark contrast to the reluctant newlyweds: an important feature of the protracted plot.
Despite such effective casting flaunted here, the “Americanisation” of some roles leaves something to be desired for many a refined viewer. Indeed an examination of the cast would yield little in terms of French, or even European, authenticity. Thanks to a sparse script, however, this does not pose too much of a problem, particularly when surrounded by enough rococo furniture to last one stunted lifetime.
Despite the historical flaws, precision casting and sumptuous cinematic extravagance turn this movie into an entertaining alternative version of the life of a queen whose difficult personal circumstances have been passed over by history, in favour of the portrait of a autocratic and adulterous despot. Guillotine or no guillotine, it is a film made to make us reconsider, cleverly forcing us to sympathise whether we want to or not. I say, “long live the queen of excess!”