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October 24, 2006

Marie Antoinette may be pretty in pink, but Coppola film lacks complete palette

About halfway through Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I realized that I wasn’t sitting through a film, but an experience. As pink cake after pink cake, pink shoe after pink shoe, and gorgeous pink dress after gorgeous pink dress flashed across the screen, I began to wonder if even the air at Versailles was a bit pink. The delicious visuals mixed with the intriguing tale of a young queen’s growth should have combined to create a film as satisfying as the pastries it showcased, but Coppola was so concerned with making her story pretty that she forgot to give it pace. Every scene is beautifully styled, but the film is more like a series of photo shoots strung together than a story.

In making the movie, Coppola aimed to examine Marie Antoinette not as a symbol of profligacy and self-absorption, but as a teenager thrown into an arranged marriage in a foreign country who eventually learned to make her way. Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is girlish, sparkling, and earnest in her desire to please. She arrives at Versailles to marry the Dauphin Louis (Jason Schwartzman), heir to the French throne at age 15. Her sudden membership in a cold world of luxury and ceremony daunts her and she is frustrated and humiliated by her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her.

As Louis, Schwartzman is marvelously and painfully inhibited; he can barely talk to his wife, much less make love to her, and Marie is blamed for the fact that her marriage is not consummated for seven years. Dunst embodies Marie’s awkwardness and anguish with great subtlety; in her delicate attempts to interest her husband, her slow adjustment to French etiquette, and her acquisition of friends, she strikes a perfect balance between naïveté and awareness of how ridiculous her situation is.

Uncomfortable in her role as a wife and a figurehead, the only thing Marie feels able to do is spend money. She splurges on exquisite clothes (her shoes were designed by Manolo Blahnik) and throws extravagant parties. Coppola indulges herself too much in documenting Marie’s excesses. The pastiches of shoes, food, gambling, and multiple champagne fountains are amusing, but they only captivate for so long. The pageantry drags on far longer than it should. The human interactions squeezed in between the bonbons are also problematic, since Coppola works too hard to show us the connections between the celebrities of yesteryear and our own tabloid stars. Their conversations are jarringly anachronistic—“yeah” used over and over becomes an irritating refrain—a contrived and condescending device for reminding the audience that the characters have modern counterparts. Marie’s affair with the Swedish Count Axel Fersen epitomizes the frothy miscalculations made when choosing how to examine the queen’s extravagance. Touched on as an example of self-indulgence, the liaison is so obviously ungrounded in any real emotion that it is an annoying distraction, as are most of the scenes showcasing the dissipation of the court.

The film only gains balance when it explores Marie’s relationship with Louis, which blossoms beautifully. By far the movie’s greatest achievements are Dunst and Schwartzman’s tentative advances toward each other, as well as their endearing love scene and the tenderness that grows between them. Their affection is the only thing in the film that remotely resembles a plot. As they grow from shy teenage couple to affectionate adult pair and parents of several children, both characters gain grace and poise. By being a husband to Marie and a father to their children, Louis feels more capable, and Marie’s responsibilities as a wife and mother take her focus away from luxury, which she eventually perceives more as an obligation than as an amusement. By the time the revolution begins, Louis and Marie have finally grown up.

Coppola shows only the beginning of the French Revolution, choosing to end the film when the royal family leaves Versailles. The last few scenes of the film are wonderful; Dunst is graceful and dignified as she reacts to the public’s hatred, and Schwartzman is wonderfully earnest and ineffectual in his longing to protect his family. The problem is that Coppola chooses to end the film too early, setting the scene for the revolution and then not examining Marie’s experiences up to her death. The abrupt conclusion left me with a keen sense of what the movie does wrong: It stitches together a lot of lovely scenes without thinking about how they function as a whole. Each scene independently is a perfect jewel, but when they are put together, Coppola gives them all equal weight and then stops the story without a catharsis. In so doing, she prevents the movie from having any kind of a dramatic arc. Marie Antoinette would have been a very good movie had Coppola given more consideration to plot, sequencing, and the value and drama of the history she was working with, and focused a bit less on the pretty dresses and sumptuous cakes. As it is, the film washes over the viewer like a cloud of perfume, giving only occasional, unsatisfying whiffs of the power of the material from which it was distilled.