Rest assured — the rumors that the young dauphine dons a pair of Converse are entirely untrue. However, the other glaring anachronisms that have launched critics into skepticism and hipsters into swooning reverie are entirely present: the New Order soundtrack, the “Us Weekly” gossip and even the egregiously contemporary dialogue. Clearly, this film should be a disaster — a vindication for all of those sniveling cynics who pan Sofia Coppola as a dumb heiress who likes pretty things and makes pretty movies. Or worse, a Philistine with daddy’s wallet.
However, “Marie Antoinette” proves Sofia Coppola to be a more talented Daddy’s girl than Paris Hilton. Simply put, the film manages to be an exquisite piece of storytelling and a masterpiece of cinema by avoiding the pitfalls of the historical epic.
Coppola’s “Antoinette” makes the story of l’enfant terrible — of “let them eat cake” fame — palpable through methods more visceral than aesthetic. Yes, the speech can seem inappropriate (“Are we there yet?” moans a young Marie in her coach). And yes, even the 20th century score can be surprising (“I Want Candy” chirps as the film scrolls through images of elaborate cakes). But such devices aren’t meant to degrade history with pop culture vice, but rather to liberate the narrative from boring genre conventions (the sweeping scores, the Russell Crowe somberness). Take the Bow Wow Wow as a blessing.
Coppola isn’t interested in embalming history. Instead, she reincarnates Antoinette’s youthfulness in the clean Midwestern smile of Kirsten Dunst, who succeeds brilliantly in the cross-continental role. Things are pretty sweet for the 13-year-old Marie, who lives a slumber party-like existence in the cavernous drawing rooms of an Austrian palace. Yet the innocence of this tow-headed virgin is sacrificed to diplomacy, as she is sent to France to marry Louis XVI (a perfectly cast Jason Schwartzman) and forge the Franco-Austrian alliance.
Dunst reveals these virginal transgressions with perfect fragility: She delicately sobs when she is forced to abandon her squirming pug and greets her soon-to-be husband (who she’s never met) with naive sweetness. Yet, all the while, none of these scenes feel remotely staged. Coppola, using the same clean shots as her friend Wes Anderson, is instead more a casual observer, absorbing ambient moments as Marie watches her native soil roll past her gilded coach. Even during Antoinette’s elaborate greeting at Versailles, Coppola’s filmmaking — all hush and loaded silence — places the viewer in Marie’s stinging awkwardness as she fields sneers from powdered royals. Rarely does such fantastic history feel so lived in.
However, in true Sofia Coppola form, the film eventually caves to levity. Schwartzman’s dauphin is delightfully inept in both personality (“So, I hear you like locks?” Marie asks over a theatrical breakfast) and in the bedroom, where his admiration never realizes itself in sexual innuendo. This circus is only further exacerbated by the gruff Louis XV (a hilarious Rip Torn) and the pernicious gossip of the French royal court (“She looks like a little piece of cake,” muses a dinner party guest).
Coppola’s Versailles, shot on-location, is a wild spectacle of silly pageantry and heaving bosoms. And while the nubile Antoinette initially falls victim to rumors of her “Austrian frigidity” in the bedroom, she eventually shuns her concerns for political and sexual Anschluss and opts for Reaganomic extravagance with a score of tepid ’80s synth.
Here, Coppola’s cinematography — once staid and symmetrical — gives way to total delirium as Dunst’s Antoinette trades sexual frustration for many, many pairs of shoes and increasingly gay stylists. There’s something exhilarating about watching Antoinette tear through French couture like a Robertson Boulevard boutique or drunkenly steal off to Paris to court a virile Swedish soldier at a masquerade ball. Yet, since we empathize with Antoinette’s crushing panic to produce an heir, this newly-acquired Nicole Ritchie-esque carelessness doesn’t seem rash.
And what does it matter, anyway? The screams of the impoverished proletariat are inaudible in Marie’s world of teenage drama, which indulges itself in cathartic materiality. If anything, the antiheroine’s world is weighted primarily by its seeming inconsequence: an inability to produce an heir, its mercurial straddling of nations and the impossibility of balancing the laws of physics and elaborate wigs.
Yet Coppola quickly discards this prodigal ethos like outmoded fashion. Antoinette gives birth to a daughter and receives an idyllic country house (complete with crooning stable boys) as compensation. Here, Antoinette ponders Rousseau’s transcendentalism and shucks Versailles silk for gauzy linen. The spectral essence of “Lost in Translation” imbues each of these ambient scenes — Dunst’s fingers grazing rustling grass — with a similar stratospheric disconnect. This is Antoinette lost in her own kingdom, alienated by her own ordained position.
Obviously, this airy lack of consequence condenses into a guillotine fate, and the film’s tone adjusts accordingly. Post-punk magenta is exchanged for funereal black, and giddy rock anthems by The Strokes are traded for elegiac opera. In one scene, Antoinette attends a mournful musical in Paris, and the rolling score continues past the show’s finale, ensnaring Marie at its tragic center. Here, the cruel symmetry in cinematography resumes, further underscoring Antoinette’s withering isolation to its fatal end, which elegantly avoids any medieval violence.
But despite her grisly demise, the perennially young dauphine never loses her innocence (even after her death sentence, which has seemed to haunt her since her arranged marriage was announced). Coppola manages to evaporate boorish history and to distill the story of the Material Girl-cum-queen through pure human ethos. And through this timeless pastiche of New Order and historical fact, this tragic figure — this darling “piece of cake” — is perhaps exonerated from those famous damning words.
Dir: Sofia Coppola