Marie Antoinette

Director: Sophia Coppola
With: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman

Runtime: 118 min

Marie Antoinette is an Austrian princess who is married off to the future king of France as a teenager, in 1770. Life at Versailles is stuffy and stifled by convention. Marie’s husband is dull and unresponsive to our young lady’s needs, which breeds some considerable anxiety since failure to produce a royal child will humiliate her and corrode her position at court. She is lucky to have to put up with all the gossip and frustration. If she didn’t, she’d feel the full extent of the boredom which governs the first third of this weird little movie.

The director, Sofia Coppola, treats us to a painstakingly detailed initiation into this remote world, so familiar from history books; every greeting, change of costume and carriage ride seems to matter, though it’s not clear why. Marie has no history in Austria that we know of, apart from a sombre room in which she bids farewell to her mother, which makes her the universal lonely girl – one that knows herself as little as we do.
That is her arc: she arrives, desperate as she’s deprived of her dog, confounds the French with her innocent cheer, suffers as she’s deprived of sex, confounds the French with her ravenous spending sprees, then suffers like a Queen as the Revolution deprives her of everything. Your average voyage of self-discovery and a brief history of the French court dressed up in Kirsten Dunst.

Cunningly, Coppola composes a soundtrack of some very unhistoric tracks by Aphex Twin, Air, The Strokes, et al, setting her heroine against our glorious present into which she would fit so well, since all she wants is to have fun. But Coppola is too insecure for her own good. In a wonderful moment, everything comes together as the royal couple’s crowning ceremony is underscored by “Plainsong” – then that moment is over. To help her story achieve transcendence, she enlists the help of The Cure but cuts them off after about 30 seconds, afraid that her film will be eclipsed by the music.

As the mob storms the palace in the closing minutes, Marie presents herself at the balcony; she bows; the crowd goes quiet, their torches illuminating the courtyard. She has become a rock star, though, as with her process of maturity, the hows and whys are largely left unanswered. Do you buy it? What is there to buy? With its gorgeous but aimless cinematography, costumes and production design, the movie resembles a music video with nothing to sell but itself. For myself, I am on the hook. Just sixty thousand more monthly instalments to pay off, and Versailles will be officially mine.

Reviewed by Paul Becker

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