Saturday, October 21, 2006

MARIE ANTOINETTE - Versailles goes Top Shop

Many reviewers of MARIE-ANTOINETTE have criticised writer-director Sofia Coppola for two things: first, her avoidance of actual history and second, her use of young American actors and a 1980s New Romantic sound-track. To deal with the second first, I have no problem with the cast. I think they all do a manful job. It is nice to see young people play even younger characters. One of the key points about Versailles during this period is that is changes from a court of a grand-father to one of three young couples. It would be a-historic not to see them drinking champagne, gambling and living it up with fine clothes. I don't even mind the accents. The acting transcends these. Kirsten Dunst is a delight as Marie-Antoinette - capturing her graceful nature, love of children, hopeless position and short attention span. Similarly, Jason Schwartzman ably captures Louis XVI's shyness and ungainliness. I would have liked to see more of him and his motives for not consumating the marriage.

As to the 1980s sound-track - in fact, these songs are used far less than you might expect on the sound-track and I think work rather well. I also love the costume design and the way in which Coppola has captured the beauty and the oppressiveness of Versailles. The scenes filmed with Kirsten Dunst and her young daughter at le Petit Trianon are also beautiful and touching.

But, as much as I loved the first forty-five minutes or so of this film, I came away feeling bored and frustrated. And this stems from the way in which Coppola has chosen to tackle history. Of course, I do not side with critics who argue she has a *duty* to show the facts and stick to them. It is an artist's prerogative to do as she likes. But Coppola's approach has two ramifications both of which damage the film.

First, this rendering of Marie-Antoinette's life skims over the surface, quoting heavily from the celebrated biography by Lady Antonia Fraser, but never really grasping its essence. For instance, we see two twittering aunts (one of which is played by the brilliant Shirley Henderson poisoning Marie-Antoinette against Louis XVth's (Rip Torn's) mistress, Madame du Barry (the fabulous Asia Argento). We see Marie-Antoinette snub her but we do not feel the deep consequences of this. Similarly, we understand that Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and the Emperor Joseph of Austria (Danny Huston) write or visit Marie-Antoinette, but never feel the harsh pressure they put her under to act in Austria's interests. Again and again, where events are shown their meaning is skated over. But more often than not they are not shown at all. We have no affair of the necklace, no crying over the vicious lies of the libelistes. I understand that Coppola wants to show us that Marie-Antoinette is just a young girl out of her depth at court - but to disembody Marie-Antoinette's story from the political machinations is to neuter it. It loses half its punch and half its poignancy.

Second, there simply is not enough narrative meat to this film to sustain its 130 minute run time. To put this in context. Coppola takes 100 minutes to get us to a point where she has not yet given birth to a son. This equates to roughly 200 pages of Antonia Fraser 570 page book. We have yet to have the affair of the necklace, the imprisonment and "punishment". Very little of this is dealt with in the film and what there is looks like a cod-pastiche of EVITA - itself hardly an example of artistic brilliance.

So, MARIE-ANTOINETTE does what it wants to do well - it shows the fast set at court living it up and isolated from the wider world. It does this with style, imagination and conviction. But the movie's ambitions are slight and all too slight to maintain the run-time. This film is no fiasco - it did not deserve the booes it received at Cannes - but neither is it worth seeing.

MARIE ANTOINETTE has already opened in Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the US, Portugal and the UK. It opens in Germany, Finland, Italy, Denmark and Sweden in November and in Australia and Israel in December. It opens in Russia, Mexico, Spain, Japan and Brazil in January 2007 and in Estonia in February.

1 comment:

  1. i completely agree on you-the film seemed to have gone overboard with sentimality and i really enjoyed coppola's previous films but this one is a definite no

    great review