“‘Let them eat cake’? As if I’d say that!”
I’m in a million different minds about Marie Antoinette. I love the French Revolution, but this is not a movie about the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette exists in a by turns oppressive and decadent dream state, devoid of a story or scenes. Time progresses, new characters arrive and old characters disappear, and then it’s over. The events that lead to its conclusion are barely touched upon, and in this way Sofia Coppola has created an intimate portrait of a woman in such a manner that the audience can’t tell if the film or the queen is the superficial one.
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), princess of Austria, is married off to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), dauphin of France, when she is fourteen. When it becomes apparent that Louis is more interested in locks than in creating an heir, the gossip of the courtiers of Versailles drives Marie Antoinette practically mad. She escapes into a world of conspicuous consumption and pop music, but still not quite all is right …
You can define Marie Antoinette by what it is – a largely dialogue free account of the life of a woman who cared about little save her own happiness – and by what it is not – a serious account of the causes of the French Revolution that details the suffering of the people at the hands of their indulgent queen. The parts left uncovered suggest precisely how life may have been for Marie Antoinette: idyllic, somewhat boring and, after the death of her mother, entirely uninfluenced by the outside world.
On the one hand, my vaguely intimate knowledge of the courtiers of Versailles made Marie Antoinette more enjoyable than it would otherwise have been, but my knowledge of the realities of the commoners of France (the other 96% of the population) made this an exercise in frustration. The film allows us only to follow Marie Antoinette, traipsing through Versailles in various stages of distress and giddy excitement.
You can tell if she’s feeling crushed by the atmosphere of Versailles because the score adopts regal chamber music, and you can tell if she’s feeling particularly decadent because she’s accompanied by gleefully anachronistic pop music along the lines of “I Want Candy”.
Antoinette cannot define her malaise and, as such, she appears terribly shallow. Kirsten Dunst is accomplished enough as an actress to make the pain of her inability to consummate her marriage and the joy of finally falling pregnant seem real, and she breathes life into this queen. Coppola has perfected the feeling of the meaningless gossip that prevailed in Versailles, and begins many scenes mid-conversation.
More subtle is the relationship between Antoinette and Louis, her plainly uninterested husband. Jason Schwartzman is extremely good at playing awkward people and emanates the suggestion that Louis is really too young to be interested in any of what is going on. The big surprise is that all of this changes once Louis finally comes to understand what it means to consummate a marriage: the King and Queen of France at last have a bond, and the warmth between the two actors suddenly becomes as strong as the coldness between them had been before. They act more as companions than as passionate lovers, but in a society where one may not choose who they marry this is hardly surprising.
Something of a disappointment was the brazen sexiness of Antoinette’s affair with Fersen. I prefer the insinuation that it happened without any of the graphic demonstration that amounts to little more than rumour and innuendo. Antoinette is, by this point, filling a hole that should not exist – perhaps one that could have been filled by attending to her subjects – and loses sympathy as a result. These scenes are fortunately balanced by her family life; If nothing else, we get the impression that Antoinette dearly loved her children.
This film is based on a book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which would probably be excruciating to read in its wild eyed sympathy for this monarch. The filmic adaptation works because it is constrained by its cinematic form, where frustration can be viewed as a genuine technique. The arrival and disappearance of figures bear as much importance on the history of this story as they likely did on the life of Antoinette herself. She may have been intelligent, but her boredom and inattentiveness never let us find out much about her.
Everything about the Queen comes together to create an exquisitely rendered yet emotionally and intellectually distant film.
Marie Antoinette is helped and hindered by its limited focus. It doesn’t seem like a movie so much as it seems like the elliptical dream of a woman who lived for only one thing, something that she could never quite identify. The dream finishes when that unknown quantity disappears forever … then the credits roll and you can go home.