Monday, November 13, 2006

Marie Antoinette * Sofia Coppola * 2006

When I think of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I picture an enormous, decadent cupcake iced with inches of thick pink frosting and sprinkled with silver nonpareils. Perhaps this is due in part to the abundance of towering desserts throughout the film, coupled with the prominence of hues of pastel pinks, greens, and blues over darker tones. The film’s overall impression is one of extravagance and excess—a sugary, delicious, gluttonous bite of cake.

The film is a departure from the hazy, subtle dreaminess of Coppola’s two previous films, a garish display of grandiose interiors, debaucherous parties, and credit card-maxing shopping sprees (the historical equivalent, at least.) But one cannot entirely blame Marie Antoinette for her behavior—her high spiritedness and youthful energy are stifled by her environment, exemplified when her attempts at applauding the opera—“It was wonderful, clap!”—are initially responded to with indignant stares. She does not have an appropriate means of expressing herself, instead indulging in lavish parties and fancy shoes. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette’s ennui ends up rubbing off on the audience, as the constant parties and displays of excess become somewhat repetitive, and, well, boring.

Much fuss has been made over Coppola’s use of 1980s pop songs on the soundtrack, but I found them to be highly effective; such modern touches, though anachronistic, humanize the characters, so that one can relate to them on a personal level, rather than as distant, historical figures, on a higher plane of existence than our own. Moreover, the music of bands like New Order and The Cure captures a certain romantic spirit that succeeds in creating an impression, a feeling of what it was like to be these people.

Coppola attempts to present the film from a personal point-of-view, that of Marie Antoinette as a young girl coming of age under trying circumstances—particularly her arrival in France, when she is forced to strip before dozens of strangers in order to shed her Austrian belongings, and her difficult marriage to the disinterested Louis-Auguste (brilliantly portrayed by Jason Schwartzman). Thus, the political context, while present, is just below the surface, barely hinted at. While I’m not an expert on the subject, I imagine that Marie Antoinette led a rather sheltered existence, out of touch with reality and unaware of the significance of the events that were occurring beyond the grounds of Versailles. Thus, when the outside world ultimately comes crashing through her proverbial bubble, in the form of an angry mob storming the palace, the result is jarring and unexpected. Perhaps it was experienced in much the same way by Marie Antoinette—as a total shock.

The final scene of the ruined palace bedroom is rather affecting, but I wonder if the film would have been more powerful if it had delved deeper into the events that followed: the family’s placement under house arrest in Paris, the beheading of Louis XVI—it is said that Marie Antoinette fainted upon hearing the crowds cheering at the sight of his severed head—the imprisonment and ultimate death of their eight year old son, Louis Charles, and the beheading of Marie Antoinette herself. The extreme contrast between their sheltered, pampered lifestyle—marked by cute puppies and fuzzy lambs and wealth beyond my comprehension—and their brutal end would most likely have been quite moving. However, it was Coppola’s intention to tell a different story, and perhaps her omission of the beheading was a wise choice. Ultimately, I’m pleased that she does not give in to the viewer’s morbid curiosity.

I did find the film’s portrayal of the passage of time to be somewhat confusing. Until I researched some of the historical facts after watching the movie, I hadn’t realized that so much time had passed throughout the course of the film; it was seven years before Marie and Louis consummated their marriage—I had imagined it was more like a year or so—the film encompassing about 20 years on the whole. Several major events are quickly glossed over, such as the death of their oldest son, Louis-Joseph, which is briefly gestured at with a scene depicting Marie Antoinette clad in a black veil, gazing despairingly at a small coffin. (In fact, they had a fourth child, Sophie Beatrix, who, as far as I can remember, was not mentioned at all.) Such decisions were surely made for the sake of time, although with a running time of 123 minutes, it seems that there could have been some cuts in the baroque party scenes in favor of more exposition.

Though a divergence in style from The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette is thematically consistent with Coppola’s previous works, focusing on the female protagonist’s sense of isolation, as she is immersed in a world that cannot truly appreciate or understand her. While it may be flawed, the film is nonetheless beautiful, a refreshingly unique approach to the historical period piece.

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