Far more baffling than any amount of legerdemain on display in one of this week’s other offerings, The Prestige, is just how Sofia Coppola could have Svengali’d the world into believing that her Marie Antoinette biopic is actually daring. When I first saw the trailer months ago, I thought it looked interesting, and I was ready to give Ms. Coppola the benefit of the doubt, even though her Lost in Translation (2003) had left me pretty cold. Then when Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes (an occurrence that now seems exaggerated for controversy’s sake), it sounded even more interesting.
The icing on the cake, though, came when Coppola claimed that Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) was a major influence on the film. For the uninitiated, Lisztomania (advertised as “the erotic, exotic, electrifying rock fantasy — it out-Tommy’s Tommy“) is a colorful, cheeky, deliberately anachronistic film that portrays Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey) and Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) as 19th century rock stars. It is one of the most outrageous films ever made. (I toyed with including it in last year’s Russell retrospective at the Asheville Film Festival, watched it again and decided it was still ahead of its time.) Coppola needs to watch it again, because her Marie Antoinette is not only weak tea by comparison, it’s weak tea where someone forgot to bring the tea bag.
Everything “daring” about Marie Antoinette is in the trailer — the use of (generally not very good) ’80s pop music, the tabloid-esque graphics, the stylized look — and the film adds little more than an extra 120 minutes of the same. It’s nice to look at, it’s glorious to look at, but it’s dramatically on the inert side. For every clever bit or striking image, there are long stretches of dead air. (I am beginning to think that these dead patches in Coppola’s work are what she’s passing off as profundity.) I can’t say I didn’t like it, because in the main I did. There are several wonderful moments and one magnificent scene (the masked ball), but there’s nothing new here and certainly nothing daring. Compared to Coppola’s film, William Dieterle’s 1934 historical romp Madame DuBarry is positively subversive.
Coppola has one idea — to present the ill-fated Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) in terms of a modern “poor little rich girl,” whose only crime is ignorance compounded by self-indulgence. It’s not a bad idea, but since Coppola is herself indulged Hollywood “royalty,” it smacks of being a wayward attempt at self-justification. In fact, what the movie suggests about Coppola is far more interesting than anything it might be trying to say about its titular heroine.
What it says about Marie Antoinette — and by implication about Coppola — isn’t terribly flattering, nor does it do much to generate sympathy. Antoinette may have been thrust into a strange world at an early age and given over to a loveless marriage with a sexually inept bridegroom, but she’s also shown as utterly shallow (reading a book of Rousseau is her sole concession to anything outside her privileged existence) and completely out of touch. She’s rarely more than a bored, spoiled teenager (even though she’s supposed to be 38 by the end of the film) doing the 18th century equivalent of going to the mall, holding slumber parties and becoming a fashionista with a shoe collection that might shame Imelda Marcos.
She gets older (though doesn’t look it), but not appreciably wiser. When late in the day she decides to economize by not buying any more diamonds, the image is of someone who simply never had a clue — and yet it’s impossible to tell if Coppola is making that case, or if she honestly thinks this was a great and noble sacrifice on Antoinette’s part.
Strangely, the film’s most engagingly sympathetic character is Jason Schwartzman’s Louis XVI. Schwartzman plays him as a sweetly simple, rather sad fellow, who seems to somehow sense that he’s doomed from the onset, but has no idea why and even less of a clue what to do about it. Unlike Antoinette, his character grows from a figure of fun to one who finds a kind of innate nobility when it’s too late. He is the truly tragic character here — and I don’t think that was Coppola’s idea. In the end, it’s a mixed bag that works as a basic conceit, but not as drama; that works as an essay in beautifully stylized imagery, but not as storytelling. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity and innuendo.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke