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Truly Great Movies – Marie Antoinette (2006)

April 26, 2010

All hail the Queen

“At 15 she became a bride.
At 19 she became a queen.
By 20 she was a legend.”
  -Tag Line for Marie Antoinette (2006)

Sofia Coppola’s biopic of the most notorious Queen of France has been, like the titular lady herself, much maligned and misunderstood.   Coppola’s film is not a straight-forward, redundant slice of historical sophistry, but a frothy, complex confection too divine to be appreciated by critical snobs who might be  expecting more traditional and accurate fare.

The price of decadence

Coppola stated up front that her vision for the film was not to tell the “true”, complete story of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst)’s life, but to illustrate her historical and cultural impact.  The film’s many  modern elements (including a jarring and paradoxical punk soundtrack) were intended to humanize the characters and illustrate their innate similarites to our own century’s heiresses, who themselves run rampant and amuck through their own fame with almost monstrous glee.   Indeed, Marie was a mere teenager when she came to the throne, and was rapidly sucked into a world of full of the vapid pursuit of the next  game, the latest dress, or the cruelest trick.

Coppola presents not a staid, boring oil portrait, but a moving, fluid watercolor come to life.  The filmmakers were given complete and total access to Versailles in all of its glory, and the film’s characters move through its hallways and gardens with wings of air and souls of glass.  It’s stylized to the max – and so were the players of the French court of the time. 

Trapped by duty and custom

Marie Antoinette herself was a fish out of water when she first came from Austria to the French court of Louis XV.  Her backwater charms were appreciated by few, and scorned by many.  Coppola’s portrait of this intriguing woman lets us view her missteps and triumphs right alongside her, and it is hard not to get caught up in the fragile universe she is forced to adopt as her own.  Thrust into a marriage with the awkward Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman), she is plagued at every turn by strange customs (dressing in front of all of the premier court ladies, eating in front of commoners and servants) and even stranger ideas about marital love and noblesse oblige. She wants to do nothing but please, stating, “Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”  She would be in for a lifetime of disappointment.

The film’s performances take a backseat at times to the sets and costumes, which are immaculately create and utilized to brilliant effect. The court of the royal couple is all surface shine and appearances, and every fold and every feather is perfection.  Costumer Milena Canonero created the looks of each individual character to match his/her personality quirks and strengths.  Hence, Marie’s overall look evolves from pale, dim pastels to vibrant, over-the-top hairpieces (as her fame grows) and finally culminates in the simple, shepherdess garb she would adopt while escaping from the world at her Petit Trianon.  This gorgeous world made up entirely of “window dressing” would end up collapsing in on itself under the weight of all its frivolity.

Pomp and Circumstance

The actors are muted in comparison to the luminous visual spectacle, but the fine supporting performances by Rose Byrne as the Duchesse de Polignac, Judy Davis as the Comtesse de Noailles (“Madame Etiquette”) and Steve Coogan as the Ambassador Mercy keep the plot and basic story moving at an enjoyable pace.  At any rate, it is Marie’s story, and the other actors do not tread on her finery.

The film is not meant to be a play by play of the downfall of the French monarchy; indeed, the film does not even show the demise or imprisonment of the royal family.  It appropriately ends when the sheltered, insular world withinVersailles can no longer hide from the peoples’ discontent.  The days of the great kings were over, and the reign of the common man was at hand.   The last lingering gaze of Marie’s beautifully sculptured gardens at Versailles sums up the movie well;  one way of life comes to an end as a new era is beginning.   Seen from the fresh, young perspective of Coppola, it is a fitting end to a lacy, elegant frock of a tale.

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