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Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 10.26.06


Girl, Interrupted

A lush but flawed history of Marie Antoinette


MARIE ANTOINETTE: Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Cinematography, Lance Acord. Music by Air and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon and Marianne Faithful. Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures, 2006. PG-13. 122 minutes.

Imagine being given away by your parents before you reached your fifteenth birthday, to be raised by strangers in a country wholly foreign to you. Even if you lived in a royal chateau with every available luxury, would you ever feel at home? That is the conceit at the heart of Marie Antoinette, a lush, sympathetic and occasionally frustrating film about the life of the doomed queen.

The film opens with a slow, dreary carriage ride. Marie (Kirsten Dunst), an archduchess of Austria, is being delivered to her future husband, Louis-August (Jason Schwartzman), heir to the throne of France. Marie knows Louis only from his portrait. A bubbly girl of few affectations, she's immediately disliked by the judgmental, mirthless courtesans. "Here comes the Austrian," they snarl at her approach, a sentiment echoed throughout the movie. Louis, although gentle, is aloof and ineffectual. Marie is stripped and re-dressed, and her dog is taken away. Her "handover" is complete.

At Versailles, the newlyweds endure the now-ridiculous formalities once common to the absolute monarchy. They are tucked in by 30 people each night. They are dressed by attendants every morning. Intended to establish tone and pace, these early scenes hurt the movie. It's probably something of a fait accompli that by attempting to reflect the tedium of court life, the film itself becomes tedious.

It isn't long before Marie realizes she's prized only for her ovaries. Without a male heir, she's vulnerable to the whims of the court. But her future — not to mention a Franco-Austrian alliance — hinges on a sex act that bashful Louis won't perform.

Neglected, Marie's appetites increase. Marie Antoinette now becomes a waiting game: When and where will Marie cut loose? If you're going down, go down in style — and there's plenty of style in Marie Antoinette. The rumors of Dunst trotting around in pink high-tops turn out to be untrue, but the sensibility here is thoroughly modern. Director Sofia Coppola shreds the standard biopic script by using an '80s New Wave soundtrack (Adam and the Ants, New Order) and natural accents (for some actors, at least). These elements have been called controversial — the film was booed at Cannes — but they invigorate a film that can ill afford to slacken. Fans of Romeo + Juliet (1996) will feel at home with these and other transpositions.

Visually, Marie Antoinette is stunning. Coppola was given unprecedented access to Versailles, and she uses the interiors to graceful effect. The dances and parties enjoyed by jet-setting Antoinette make you want to reach for the champagne. But even here, the movie outdoes itself. Late in the film, a montage of Dunst in a meadow resembles an Estée Lauder commercial. At times, the film has a frustrating, languid pace that feels as indulgent as the legendary cravings of its subject.

As Marie, Dunst is sensational. Only Dunst has the blend of innocence and poise required to play this role. She helps bring focus to a sometimes unfocused picture that essentially is about a temperament — a strange, beautiful and alluring temperament — that Coppola seems to view as out of step with Marie's times. But Marie's isolation, and the restrictions of the court, provide few intimate moments for us to savor. There are touching and effective scenes throughout, but we're limited to watching from Marie's restricted point of view.

In my opinion, Coppola eventually will return to the smaller, more intimate subject matter that made Lost in Translation (2003) such an unforgettable film. Marie Antoinette, for all its lusciousness, for all its playfulness and zeal, is too big a canvas for the young director. Whereas Translation was lean and efficient, this portrait of the woman to whom "Let them eat cake" is credited is too much sugar, not enough substance.   



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