Saturday, October 21, 2006

Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006)

It is easy to see how Sofia Coppola’s newly released take on the life of Marie Antoinette could be met with disapproval and outright scorn by many. For one thing, it fails utterly as biography and probably falls even shorter of being sound history. Those who have expectations along those lines will be utterly disappointed. Fortunately though, Marie Antoinette has different aspirations and succeeds beautifully if accepted on those terms. Watching Coppola’s third feature film, it is clearer than ever that she has a distinct stylistic purpose that works to great effect here. She is a cinematic impressionist, painting individual moments with a light touch and then allowing the viewer to put the pieces together in order to create meaning. She values the visual over the spoken, mood over narrative and ambiguity over clarity. If you have seen her prior two films, you should know already whether or not this is the film for you.

The most striking artistic choice made by Coppola is to drain the period drama of all of its typical stuffiness. The language used by her characters is direct and mostly free of the kind of elevation that one might normally expect (see Keanu and Winona in the Dracula film made by Coppola’s father). She has cast actors that may strike us as definitely associated with modernity such as Jason Schwartzman, Molly Shannon, Asia Argento and, of course, her lead, Kirsten Dunst. She has scored her film mostly with modern pop songs, creating gleeful anachronistic moments that Baz Luhrmann could only dream of matching. Her choices succeed where Luhrmann’s fail because she has created an alternate historical France that has internal consistency. Her characters have modern concerns and aspirations; however, there are limits. We do not see Marie walking around with an IPOD, for example, or putting up a poster of The Postal Service.

Most of the dramatic (and comedic) thrust comes from the inability of Marie and her arranged husband, Louis, to produce a male heir. Louis has a stubborn (and in my view, wholly unreasonable) resistance to consummating his marriage, preferring rather to go on long hunts or read up on the latest developments in locksmithery. Perhaps it is the pressure of having the responsibility to produce a being that will one day rule an entire nation. Surely the large group of observers in the wedding chamber at bedtime including Louis’ father, the king, and priests charged with blessing the forthcoming copulation can’t help to inspire feeling of intimacy and arousal. One of Coppola’s deft touches is the way she contrasts her characters’ youthful spirits with the absurdly formal expectations that are placed upon them. Even some of the children sport wigs colored grey, as if to suggest in them a level of maturity that they cannot possibly hope to meet. When young Marie escapes to a masquerade ball for a bit of late night fun, Dunst plays the moment no differently than she might in Crazy/Beautiful. By making this choice, she and Coppola are not suggesting that people have always behaved in the same way throughout time necessarily, but rather they are attempting to find a spot that exists somewhere in between 21st century America and 18th century France that will allow us to use the figure of Marie Antoinette to learn something about ourselves. Though her film is satisfactorily researched, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is purposefully iconic – not strict historical reality.

I look forward to reading what others have ultimately taken away from the film; but, as my mind has a tendency to search for political subtext, I interpreted Marie Antoinette as a subtle warning against American isolationist attitudes. Marie lives in a world of wealth, privilege and round-the-clock pleasure. Far beyond the walls of her palace, there is poverty, war and strife. However, when these issues arise, she opts to remain blissfully ignorant. Coppola successfully gives the viewer Marie’s narrow perspective by focusing almost her entire film on the daily goings-on of the royal court. Even Marie’s brief daydream about what battle must be like is comically romanticized. Like Marie, we hear precious little about the country’s widespread discontent until it is knocking down her door in order to come for her head. In this respect, Coppola’s film could easily be paired alongside Lars von Trier’s Dogville in a hypothetical college course. Some may try to dismiss the film as exploring nothing more than the shallow ennui of the rich and fabulous, but I think that would be unfair. Coppola’s intentions were likely not as overtly political as my interpretation. I expect that femininity in crisis, battling against the expectations of society may have been more at the forefront of her mind. Still, she has once again created a work that is consistently engaging despite its refusal to follow formula and which has enough breathing room to allow different viewers to come away from the film with a singular experience.



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