WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Married at a tender age to an inattentive heir to the French throne, young Marie Antoinette finds it hard to adjust to the rigid, gossipy court at Versailles. Because her husband is reluctant to consummate the marriage, Marie fills her time with fine things and the odd fling, none of which endears her to the people of France when times get tough.
Although it had its merits – the loveliness, in all ways, of Scarlett Johansson, a reminder (as if one were needed) of Bill Murray’s genius – I always wondered whether people who praised Lost in Translation to the skies were seeing something in the movie that didn’t exist; perhaps they were desperate to praise a Coppola film after an iffy period from Francis Ford, Sofia’s Dad (Jack? Really?). Anyway, I had only heard bad things about Marie Antoinette so was keen to give it a whirl, hoping that the critics were equally mistaken about the third feature by Coppola fille.
The action (if that’s the word…but I’ll save it for later) begins in Austria in 1768, as fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is parted from her mother Marie Teresa (Marianne Faithfull) to marry France’s dauphin as an act of political expediency, with only Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan) for company. Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman) is a taciturn heir to the throne, apparently more interested in hunting and locksmithery than women, and the lack of a child causes Marie Teresa, relying on offspring to cement relations with France, to despair. The bizarre rituals of Versailles bore the young Austrian stiff, despite the intrigue caused by Louis XV (Rip Torn) and his illicit relationship with the Comtesse du Barry (Asia Argento). When the old king dies, Marie becomes queen, although her husband still only takes a vague interest in consummating the relationship. His dispassion drives her into the arms of Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan) and a life of gambling, cake, drink and fine clothes to fill the emptiness. However, the party may not last, since France is being driven into debt to defend America against the English. Though she denies ever telling them to eat cake, the population of France take against the queen and when the revolution comes, she seems destined for the chop.
To its credit, Marie Antoinette certainly looks the part. Whether showing off the grandeur of Versailles or looking more intimately at the Royal Family’s daily lives, the film’s wigs, clothes, furnishings and so on all feel authentic. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the good news ends. For Sofia Coppola, writer and director, has taken Antoinette’s story (as told by Antonia Fraser) and fashioned a film of such stultifying stillness that literally only the vibrancy of the wardrobes and comestibles keep you awake. Rather than telling the story through dialogue and action, the bulk of the film sees Dunst gliding through scenes looking slightly troubled or pensive, whilst little whispering voices say things that are possibly relevant, but you can’t really tell because the speech is buried under loud music of either the classical or studiedly modern variety. The film is chock-full of scenes that go absolutely nowhere, giving us no insight into the history or personalities of those on screen (Schwartzman’s mute Louis XVI is particularly frustrating). Contrast this with Amadeus, which flowed beautifully and helped you overlook the mixture of accents that jars so badly here; or even Evita, which told a similar story and was punctuated with some pretty naff music, but at least had drive and movement.
Marie Antoinette is fatally stifled by its immobility, with every potentially interesting avenue ignored so long as the scene looks nice: for example, the Fersen story stops abruptly, unresolved, Antoinette daydreaming as she imagines him on an unidentified battlefield; and while the queen shares a few nice scenes with her children, there are better ways of sensitively handling the death of a child than hanging up two paintings, one which portrays three children, the other merely two. When the hungry French populace do turn up (they are given one scene, in which they do very little, and are otherwise noises off), you think the film has no option but to go up a gear; but Coppola firmly resists the urge to be exciting and opts for silent eating, significant stares and a final, (naturally) still image of a ruined bedroom, symbolic of the Monarchy’s fall. God forbid she should ever try to involve the viewer or get our pulses racing.
One more word on the music: I understand entirely that Coppola is trying to present Antoinette in terms that 21st Century teens can relate to, and the inclusion of modern pop to convey mood is fine; but it intrudes far too much, to the extent that at the masked ball the gathering is actually dancing to the modern soundtrack. In the next scene, our heroine’s reflections on meeting Fersen are accompanied by the brash sound of Bow Wow Wow singing Fools Rush In, a song whose title is apt but which doesn’t suit the mood at all.
It may be a terribly disrespectful thing to say about a director on her third feature film (where’s your Oscar then, matey?), but Marie Antoinette feels unconsidered and amateurish. Coppola doesn’t have the faintest idea what she’s trying to say about Antoinette so can’t give Dunst proper dialogue or direction; as a result, the actress has the hopeless task of trying to paint the queen’s emotions by reacting to opera, getting dressed, or spending time with her ‘girlfriends’. Kirsten is a perfectly good actress, but this much exposure in a film requires much more for her to do and say; and though the story arc is clear – Antoinette begins as a scared teenager and ends as a jaded, doomed Consort – the film brings none of her turmoil to the screen. It’s only comfortable when luxuriating in the queen’s material possessions, and while that may be enough for some, I would have liked a smidgen of action, character development and historical insight to go with two hours of shoes, cake and small yapping dogs.