Sadie Rose identifies what she considers the “three colossal faults” that make Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette a real royal drag.
I don’t remember the place or circumstances around my first and only viewing of Marie Antoinette, but I remember feeling disappointed in the direction. I thought I could see Sofia Coppola’s ideas and questions, but I felt she missed the mark. At the time Paris Hilton was famous for no other reason than partying and we didn’t know who the Kardashians were yet, but they are a thing now, aren’t they? I remember thinking Coppola was trying to examine fame but failed miserably. I would have considered myself a Sofia Coppola fan at the time; her direction of The Virgin Suicides was haunting and introduced me to my favorite author Jeffery Eugenides. Lost in Translation was a success. I assumed this movie “ruined” her career, because it was a bomb, and I haven’t seen her do anything since. However, a simple Google search shows me Sofia had her first child in 2006, which from personal experience can slow one down as one becomes wrapped up in the needs of children. She started making movies again in 2010, which is when I stopped having a lot of time to watch movies because kids, man. But if my memory serves me, this movie was career-killingly bad.
Now upon my second viewing of this film, ten years later, I can see that the movie was not all bad, but rather had three glaring faults. Three colossal faults. Three faults that just overlap and entangle with one another and run throughout the whole film, which made it a miserable viewing. However, let’s start with the good.
The screenplay by Sofia Coppola is based on the Antonia Fraser biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey. It is a true telling of Marie Antoinette’s life as a child bride from Austria, the struggle she endures to secure the throne for her country, with a king who was maybe asexual, maybe homosexual; it doesn’t seem to matter to the film, despite being a major obstacle for our heroine. It’s all centered on Marie and her struggles and triumphs.
The acting is not as bad as I remember. It took me awhile to warm up to Jason Schwartzman’s Louis XVI. The first few scenes seem overworked, as if he is trying too hard to be the buffoon. However, as the movie goes on he shows some real vulnerability with Kirsten Dunst’s Marie. Marie is sweet, playful, tragic and well rounded out by Kirsten Dunst. Rose Byrne’s performance is brilliant. She plays drunk beautifully. She plays coked-out beautifully. She plays burnt-out-after-a-night-of-partying beautifully. Her physical choices are delightful to watch and she embodies the party girl, Duchess de Polignac. I was also happy to see Danny Huston play Marie’s older brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria. He has such a warm presence onscreen and was cast well for the older brother part. Then we have a young Jamie Dornan, who captures the smoldering desire of Marie’s heart as her lover, Count Fersen. Judy Davis puts in a perfectly crafted Comtesse de Noailles. But despite these great individual performances they do not gel together. They are each individually wonderful but none seem to belong next to the other.
The costume design won Milena Canonero an Academy Award, and rightly so. They are beautiful and historically accurate. I’m not sure candy pink and feather fringe were really a thing, but that dress is only seen for a moment, and there were so many other dresses. So many! The sheer volume of costumes alone should have bought her the award.
The film was shot at Versailles. Coppola relishes in this honor, capturing the palace from every angle. She savors the opportunity to show Marie running down the long hallways, floating down the river, laying in the grass, or walking and riding into and out of the gardens.
Which brings me to my first complaint. This movie is slow. Painfully slow. It’s beautifully shot, every frame is gorgeous, but it ends up feeling monotonous, which, hell, maybe that is what Coppola was aiming for. All the glamour in the world can become boring if one is bored. But watching this I had bad flashbacks of watching awful castle tour movies. The ones I had to watch in high school when I had a substitute teacher and I worked my hardest not to fall asleep while the lights were off. This movie could have been 40 minutes shorter and still have relayed the passage of time and the monotony of royal life.
Complaint Two is the movie lacks a tone. Is it a punk post-modern biopic? Is it showing us how boredom, loneliness, and access to money can create a lost person? Is Coppola drawing a comparison to Marie and the opulent L.A. that she, Paris Hilton, and other party girls grew up in? Or is this movie a period piece trying to be true to the history, costumes, customs, and the biography it is based on? Is it a campy comedy about sex, drug, and rock and roll in Versailles? Is it examining the creation and destruction of a historical villain? It doesn’t know and neither do I. There are moments that make sense, only for the next moment to ring false. The worst part? It feels as if each actor was told something different. This, more than anything, bothered me ten years ago and it becomes even more obtrusive ten years later.
Then there’s the music, which seems to have no rhyme or reason. Sometimes it’s chamber music, sometimes it’s punk, and at one point in the middle there is a music video (or is it a commercial for sweets and shopping?) for the New Wave rock anthem “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow, featuring a purposely placed pair of periwinkle Chucks. I can’t! It’s not okay! It all sticks out like a sore thumb. I don’t hate mixing of genres on principle. I think they can be used well to say something, but this is not thought-out. Coppola introduces the ladies of the French Court with an electric guitar. Then a half-hour later, the same ladies gossiping over chamber music. Then at random moments we go back to New Wave, back to opera, back to chamber… I don’t know what is being said with the music choices, but it accentuates the lack of tone.
And the last half-hour is just a rush to the end. However, I was already dead and trying not to bang my head against anything. It goes as fast as it can but it was not fast enough for me. Despite Marie’s sweet devotion to her King to stay with him till the end, I was chanting, “Chop off her head. Chop off her head. Chop off her head already!” I just wanted to be put out of my misery. Which is a shame because I liked Kristen Dunst’ Marie. I found her relatable. I even felt sympathy for the real Marie Antoinette, her death and the death of her family. But I wanted the movie to end in a bad kind of way.
Maybe Sofia Coppola needed someone else to wrangle all her ideas into a cohesive whole. Maybe they shot so much beautiful film she couldn’t bring herself to leave it on the cutting room floor. It seems she had lots of opportunity to make something beautiful, fun, and poignant, but instead it was just a beautiful mess with a lot of fat and the occasional interesting moment.