2006Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston
riginally slated for theatrical release on October 16th to coincide with the anniversary of its subject’s beheading during the French Revolution, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette ironically had to make do with a regular Friday opening, a market convention aimed at maximizing first weekend box office returns. After all, a largely French audience at Cannes booed this film, and some dismissive stateside reviews seem to confuse the film’s subject with its writer/director. Still, last Friday night I had to pick my way to the geographic center of a multiplex theater to find two seats together.
We can dispense straightforwardly with what ails this movie-as-just-a-movie. At 123 minutes, it’s a good 20 minutes too long and handles the passing of time with some awkwardness. Part of the blame here goes to repeating scenes of Marie’s partying and fashion excess. I don’t mind that the seven years during which Marie’s marriage to Louis XVI went unconsummated are compressed on-screen for cinematic effect, but the last third of the film grows confusing. Historically, Marie Antoinette covers the period from the 14-year-old Austro-Hungarian archduchess’ journey from Vienna to Versailles to marry Louis-Auguste, who becomes Louis XVI, until they flee Versailles twenty-one years later. But there is little explicit anchoring of this time-frame on-screen, and events like their first son’s death go unexplained (we merely glimpse a small blue-and-white draped coffin). What’s more glaring, after her every move is watched by throngs of courtiers, midway through the story Marie (Kirsten Dunst) abruptly has enough private time to take a visiting Swedish count as her lover.
But why the resentment of French viewers at Cannes toward this flawed film by a young American woman director? First, there’s the perception that Coppola trivializes their history by softening a notorious, still highly-charged figure into a frivolous but likable Valley Girl. Much baleful irritation has been hurled at elements like the soundtrack’s mingling of today’s pop groups with period music, but frankly I found this inventive, effective, and unobtrusive. Really, we’ve had enough Hamlet and Antigone in modern dress to handle this.
Then, Coppola reduces the French Revolution to one mob scene in Versailles’ courtyard and a sacked royal bedroom before the closing credits. On a slightly different tack, U.S. dismissal assumes Coppola herself is, if not outright empty-headed, then at best flimsy and unserious (see, for example, Nathan Lee’s remarks in Film Comment.) No one accused Bergman, just now coming back into fashion, of being apolitical when he made his Vietnam parable, Persona, or more recently, Laurent Cantet of ignoring Haiti’s murderous Duvalier regime in Heading South.
One of this film’s most fascinating cultural markers is an article in November’s Vanity Fair by British historian Antonia Fraser, whose 2001 biography of Marie Antoinette is the primary source for Coppola’s film. Disguised as a chatty, inside peek at the movie adaptation, Fraser’s article is actually the vetting of Sofia Coppola by the intellectual power couple that she and her husband, playwright Harold Pinter, comprise. The Nobel laureate used his acceptance speech last year to attack U.S. foreign policy, and of his reaction to this film, maligned as lightweight, Fraser confides, “Harold loved it.” Fraser describes a stream of emails between herself and the director once Coppola optioned the book and began the screenplay. As a final stroke, this biographer of historical political figures reveals that Coppola calls her the movie’s “godmother,” a reference to Coppola’s own family legacy that moves Marie Antoinette away from the realm of ephemeral entertainment. This reminds me of Aliens, when Ripley, clad in her giant forklift, defends the orphaned child Newt, uttering to the acid-drooling monster, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
Whatever film one wishes Coppola had made instead, it seems fair to start with the one she did make, which has politics to spare for those who look. With three features to her credit now, Coppola has built each around some outsider’s point of view and inherent issues of access and power. She has always included some preternaturally lovely creature whom the men surrounding her have, really, no idea what to do with. So, the neighborhood boys in The Virgin Suicides (1999), who recollect worshiping Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) and her sisters from afar twenty-five years ago, actually have much in common with the celebrity photographer John of Lost in Translation (2003), who neglects his new wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), leaving her adrift inside Tokyo’s giant, disorienting Park Hyatt Hotel—and with the fumbling French dauphin (Jason Schwartzman). Lost in Translation additionally presents its marooned Americans with bizarre popular Japanese interpretations of American culture, as when Bill Murray’s Bob Harris encounters the TV talk show host.
In her latest effort, Coppola portrays how an outsider enters, is engulfed, and transformed by the French court. As in previous Coppola films—I especially love Bob Harris’ split-second hesitation before he closes the door to passed-out Charlotte’s hotel room after he gets her safely home—some of Marie Antoinette’s best moments flow from the quietly tuned performances of its principals. Indeed, the film opens with Marie being awakened, her sleep intruded upon, a situation repeated throughout the film. Dunst scowls slightly, her eyes narrowed. You can almost hear the adolescent muttering, “Who are these people?” at each successive awakening. She is left to shiver naked while her ladies in waiting wrangle over who has the honor of handing her a chemise, and she sensibly bursts out, “This is ridiculous!” Her minder counters, “This is France!”
Marie wears that same quizzical little scowl when she first hears the mob clamoring in the courtyard and goes out to meet them. This is arguably her most overtly political moment in the movie. Answering their pitchforks and howls, she makes a simple gesture. The queen bows from her waist, prostrating herself on her balcony railing and briefly quieting them. Too little, too late—other than a graceful impulse, she has no more idea what to do with her people than her husband had with her. But scarier than the gulf across which Marie peered are those heads of state today who still see “the masses” as she saw them from that balcony, and we have some.
Jason Schwartzman’s Louis retains the still, watchful air of a child oppressively scrutinized from his earliest days. Short enough to pass for a stocky boy, Louis jounces on horseback, represses his glee at a good billiards shot, and hilariously switches his sword like any nervous 12-year-old pretending nonchalance might when Marie’s older brother Joseph (Danny Huston) embarks on a fatherly discussion of sex. When you and your cousins run the continent, such talk is political conversation—just as the court protocols that have witnesses watching royal childbirth simply to insure that no last-minute substitutions occur, a form of check and balance. For those who know Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution—a source not cited in Fraser’s book—the film’s most tantalizingly suggestive political thread concerns Louis XVI’s considerations about supporting the rebelling American colonists. Although he suspects it unwise to fund the example of overthrowing another sovereign, Louis happily sticks it to England. But in a film that leaves out so much, one has to wonder what this iceberg tip of a scene is doing there.
Arendt contrasted the two revolutions as fundamentally different, with the American notion of freedom really an expansion of already-existing notions of freedom to participate in public life. And the Americans only wished to leave, not literally separate George III’s head from the body politic. The North American colonies never had the numbers of people starving that France did, nor the murderous potential that rumors about the crown’s spending—and a queen’s comments on cake—might provoke. The French Revolution transformed forever the meaning of political freedom to include freedom from want, an utterly new idea. In this context, excavating the seductive excess of the Bourbon court is anything but frivolous, and no, the French aren’t over it yet. I think Marie Antoinette makes this less distant and inexplicable to us. There is a moment when Coppola has Marie cross a vast vaulted hall, the floor of which is a grid of black and white parquet tiles. She pauses in the middle—surely a figure as frozen in historical convention as priceless as any museum piece surrounded by green sensor beams. Of course, there had to be a revolution.
Marie Antoinette is playing in theatres across the country.