Girl on Film

It features lavish costumes and French people, but Marie Antoinette isn’t your average historical epic

Mike D'Angelo

It's not that Coppola's biopic is historically inaccurate, exactly. Granted, Louis and Marie didn't really blast the Cure's majestic "Plainsong" at their coronation (which is a shame), but the aggressive alt-rock soundtrack is just a young director's savvy means of rescuing the costume drama from the stately, baroque tomb in which it's usually buried. In most other respects, the film hews fairly closely to its acknowledged source, Antonia Fraser's 2001 book Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Bartered to France for political purposes, the frightened teen (Kirsten Dunst) is shuttled to the border, separated from her retinue and beloved pug, stripped buck naked (nothing Austrian was permitted to touch French soil), and delivered into a world of mystifying protocol, where the simple act of getting dressed in the morning requires a massive entourage of ladies-in-waiting, each with her own specialized and rank-appropriate task to perform. As princess and future queen, her primary task is to beget the nation a male heir to the throne; unfortunately, the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman), who isn't a pasty film geek only because cinema is still a century away, has no idea what to do with the ravishing creature who's been tossed into his bed. Seven years of pained smiles and chaste kisses later, the marriage remains unconsummated, leaving Marie, now queen, with little to do but luxuriate.

In that, of course, she's very much of a piece with previous Coppola heroines: Lost in Translation's Scarlett Johansson, only occasionally straying from the comparative familiarity of the Park Hyatt Tokyo; Dunst herself in The Virgin Suicides, a languorous insect trapped in suburban amber and paralyzed by the male gaze. Lost girls of privilege are what Sofia Coppola does, for fairly obvious biographical reasons. Her touch here is as confidently insubstantial as ever, especially given that she's essentially made an arty variation on The Princess Diaries, encouraging Dunst to eschew period flavor and invest Marie with the same mall-flavored vivaciousness she's brought to various other dream-teen roles. But in order to enjoy the movie, you have to accept the fact that it's a gauzy, pop-morose mood piece, not a character study or history lesson. Look for evidence of the starving masses beyond Versailles' imposing walls, or any political sensibility at all, and you're liable to get a nasty crick in your neck. Nor is Coppola temperamentally inclined to castigate Marie for her sad frivolity, though a few of the film's supporters have struggled to make a case for it as some kind of auto-critique. If the film portrays Marie Antoinette as the Paris Hilton of her era, it also—and this seems to be what enrages some folks—dares to suggest that being Paris Hilton might kinda suck.

Perhaps the dumbest criticism leveled at the movie involves Coppola's bold decision to end it with Marie still alive, drawing down the curtain at the moment when she's ejected from her sybaritic prison. Granted, the film's treatment of the Revolution is clumsy and pro forma, irrefutable evidence that Coppola chose wisely in not making a conventional historical biopic. But it's still a mite disturbing to find allegedly humanist critics openly clamoring for the guillotine—as if we don't know the woman's fate; as if it's some kind of moral lapse not to show the blade severing this evil bitch's carotid artery. The lesson is clear: Empathy, generosity, the willingness to upend received notions—all fine and dandy, except as applied to the rich.

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Oct 19, 2006
Top of Story