A s the princess of a filmmaking dynasty, Sofia Coppola grew up steeped—or perhaps I should say fermented—in the culture of movies, but the ones she writes and directs don’t look or sound like anyone else’s. They are avidly, defiantly, sometimes obnoxiously original. With Marie Antoinette, she continues to explore the melancholy and ethereal beauty of dislocation. In Lost in Translation, her alter ego is a neglected young wife adrift in an alien culture. Now, her alter ego is … a neglected young wife adrift in an alien culture. A couple of centuries, an ocean, a few zillion francs, and the bloody upending of a social order make a difference, bien sûr, but the emotion that holds each film (as well as her first, The Virgin Suicides) together is the same. It is the longing for release of a tremulous spirit trapped in an overbearingly material world. And trust me, you’ve seen few material worlds as overbearing as Versailles in the eighteenth century.
Coppola’s protagonist is the last and most maligned French queen, a young Austrian archduchess (Kirsten Dunst) whose empress mother (Marianne Faithfull) arranges her marriage to the future King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) in an attempt to bridge the gap between the rival world powers. A glance at the names in the above parentheses confirms that this isn’t your père’s Versailles picture, but Coppola sticks close to the historical facts. Working glancingly, impressionistically, from a sympathetic biography by Antonia Fraser, she suggests that the woman who became a symbol for a profligate and disdainful aristocracy was a child with literally no conception of her relationship to French society. Trained in elaborate rituals, buried in wigs and bodices, smothered in unimaginable luxury, she has few avenues of expression.
That makes Marie Antoinette sound as if it has a feminist thrust, but this is basically the story of a little lost rich girl who becomes a party girl who becomes a national disgrace—in an utter vacuum. Early in the film, Coppola lingers on her leading lady’s soft face in all its pale-pink-blonde dreaminess as she hugs her small dog and watches the chill, foreboding forest go by, en route to a rendezvous with the French near the border between the countries. Led by a severe countess, played by Judy Davis with the longest, tightest neck muscles I’ve ever seen, the French deep-six the pooch and strip off all of Marie Antoinette’s Austrian clothes—giving us Coppola’s signature shot, the strange new world viewed from behind her heroine’s tush. (The shot also opened Lost in Translation—and although I’m not complaining, I confess that I don’t understand all the connotations.)
Whereas Coppola’s last heroine suffered in isolation, Marie Antoinette lives a bizarrely public life, in which everything she does is the court’s business—from eating breakfast to having sexual relations. The last bit is the sore point, since the chunky young Louis shows little inclination to consummate his marriage. This might have been easier to understand if Dunst and Schwartzman had been closer to their characters’ true ages—14 and 15. But you can still feel for the prince: The future of France is a lot to have riding on one’s swordsmanship. In the face of courtiers hissing, “Give us an heir!” it’s no wonder Marie Antoinette begins to cultivate a sphere of privacy.
This is one of the most immediate, personal costume dramas ever made, and so it’s not unseemly to consider how the writer-director and her heroine overlap. Coppola grew up rich with a kingly patriarch who was sometimes two blackbirds short of a pie and either absent or under siege by creditors, and who had the brainstorm to cast her in The Godfather, Part III. After that humiliation, she fled the spotlight and obviously developed an inner watchfulness. Having partied with the rich and hip, she understands the pleasure in escapism, as well as the sense of alienation it can reinforce. In the film, as Marie Antoinette takes up gambling and gamboling—lawn parties with booze and drugs and sex—you can feel the desperation under her drive for pleasure. Coppola discovers her heroine on the verdant grounds of her mini-estate reading from Rousseau to her companions: The queen thinks she’s finally in tune with the natural world, but the natural world is about to trash her palace and whack off her head.
The French Revolution (and the head-whacking) is beyond the movie’s scope, and Coppola evinces little interest in narrative. As a screenwriter, she’s still learning: She doesn’t fully account for Marie Antoinette’s antagonism toward Madame du Barry (a garishly amusing Asia Argento), the former prostitute and mistress of King Louis XV (Rip Torn). Nor does she concern herself with her protagonist’s transformation. In life, Marie Antoinette took an increasingly active role in politics and urged her husband to build an army to take on the revolutionaries. But that queen doesn’t gibe with the helpless child of privilege who finally realizes that there’s nothing she can do about her image. Her decision to stand by her husband rather than flee for the border comes out of nowhere; and Dunst, although charming and vulnerable, simply doesn’t have the resources to play the haggardness and despair of the final scenes.