A good case for creativity being passed through the genes can be made for Sofia Coppola, the acclaimed director of The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003), daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and ex-wife of maverick filmmaker Spike Jonze. As an actress she failed to sparkle, and many blame her presence for ruining The Godfather Part III (1990), although to be fair, Sofia Coppola was forced into the role by her father when Winona Ryder dropped out to make Edward Scissorhands (1990).
However it is behind the camera that Sofia Coppola has really made her name, becoming the first American female to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category with Lost in Translation. Marie Antoinette was actually started before Lost in Translation, but the success of the latter reinvigorated the project, which was inspired by the autobiography of the Austrian archduchess by Antonia Fraser.
Fraser created a very human portrait of Marie Antoinette, who was a teenager when she married Louis XVI of France, and confounded the usual portrayal of the woman who allegedly exclaimed that the starving population of France should eat cake when told that they had no bread. In fact, she never uttered those words, and was actually more sympathetic to their plight than is often realised, writing “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”
Kirsten Dunst, who worked with Coppola on The Virgin Suicides plays the role of Marie Antoinette, the dauphine of France from the ages of 14, when she first leaves Austria to meet her husband-to-be, to the age of 38 and the fall of Versailles. Coppola’s cousin Jason Schwartzman plays the dumpy, shy Louis XVI, who exclaims when his father dies of smallpox—making him king of France in the process—”Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign.”
Marie Antoinette finds the rules of the French monarchy repressive and difficult to adjust to. She misses her friends and family and is distraught by her husband’s lack of interest in sex (the couple remained childless for seven years, leading to unkind speculation about Louis XVI’s ability to perform).
In Coppola’s take on the story, Marie Antoinette becomes something of a party animal, fighting against her dull, repetitive life, and who makes dangerous enemies with the poisonous Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), her father-in-law’s mistress. Steve Coogan as Count Mercy d’Argenteau, an Austrian diplomat in the French court, tries in vain to guide and advise her in the multifarious ways of the French aristocracy. But Marie Antoinette would rather try on new shoes and eat delicate pastries.
Coppola is intent on reinvigorating the period drama by injecting some unashamed modernity into the genre. The movie explodes onto the screen with titles that could have been created by Jamie Reid for a Sex Pistols album cover and a snappy rock soundtrack. The music in the film is an eclectic mix, combining 80s New Wave, such as New Order and Adam Ant, with material from Aphex Twin’s Drukqs album and period Baroque music by Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Coppola certainly doesn’t stick to historical facts, as she herself admits, “It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” In a scene where Marie Antoinette tries on a succession of new shoes, Coppola cheekily inserts a brief shot of a modern sneaker.
By focussing on Marie Antoinette‘s youth and energy, the movie feels lightweight, especially as it glosses over her fate, giving the impression that she escaped the revolutionary mobs surrounding Versailles. In actual fact she was imprisoned and beheaded by the guillotine at the the Place de la Révolution on October 16 1793.
At 122 minutes, the movie feels way too long, and some judicious trimming could have resulted in a more sprightly film, and frankly, by the time the credits roll, boredom is beginning to set in. The ending is a bit of a damp squib, as if the project had run out of money and couldn’t afford to rustle up an angry mob of more than a dozen or so revolutionary peasants. It desperately needs an epic ending to offset the insular world of Versailles, which separated Marie Antoinette from her people.
The odd use of language and accents is slightly jarring, with some actors speaking with heavy French accents, while Rip Torn as King Louis XV, for example, is allowed to speak with his normal, and incongruous, Texan pronunciation.
But Coppola’s movie is gorgeous to look at, and she was given unprecedented access to Versailles, filming in rooms that had never been seen by the public. The costumes are stunningly beautiful and the art direction cannot be faulted. Dunst is perfect for the role, although she looks exactly the same during the twenty year period the movie covers with nary a wrinkle for her trouble.
The movie has many moments of genius, but taken as a whole, Marie Antoinetteis patchy, superficial and flimsy. And yet, this is a hard movie to dislike: for all its faults—and there are many—it’s clear that Sofia Coppola has great talent and is not afraid of taking risks. Marie Antoinette, with its bubblegum pink and pistachio green palette, is a brave, flawed film, but one that demonstrates that the period drama can be revamped for a modern audience, even if the total is sadly not greater than the sum of its parts.