Does anyone else remember New York Stories, the three short features bundled into one 1989 film release? One was directed by Martin Scorsese, one by Francis Ford Coppola, and one by Woody Allen. I still have the movie on videotape, which I bought chiefly for the Allen segment, "Oedipus Wrecks." But once in awhile I'd watch the Coppola one too, "Life Without Zoe," an Eloise-ish tale co-written by the director's then-teenage daughter Sofia Coppola. Pre-teen Zoe lives a pampered life in a hotel, and never sees anything outside her pretty, privileged world -- the one time she encounters a homeless person, living in a box, she later brings him chocolates. Zoe ultimately meets a princess, who resides in a gorgeous room with a number of other lovely young women, all playing and chatting and seeming even more sheltered than Zoe.
Imagine stretching "Life Without Zoe" into a feature-length film -- better yet, imagine stretching that one scene with the princess into a feature-length film -- and you have a good idea of the general tone and depth of Marie Antoinette, the latest film from Sofia Coppola. Every scene is beautifully shot, designed to flatter the actors and actresses and display the lush beauty of Versailles. For two hours, we are treated to a display of prettiness. It's like one big elaborate meringue, delicate and intricately decorated, but without much past the surface. And yet, just as I still like "Life Without Zoe," I was absorbed in the film the entire time, and never felt it dragged or was dull.
As the title makes evident, Marie Antoinette is about the young woman who married Louis XVI while still in her early teens, eventually became the Queen of France, and was beheaded during the French Revolution. The movie starts when young Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) travels from Austria to France to marry Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), and ends when the royal family leaves Versailles for the last time. We are spared any killing or beheading, possibly because it would have spoiled the inherent prettiness of the film.
Most of the film is concerned with the first four years of the young couple's marriage, in which the marriage is unconsummated and as a result, no heir to the throne is produced. Marie Antoinette's mother Maria Teresa (an unrecognizable Marianne Faithful) continually writes her daughter to remind her that her place in the French court is in jeopardy until she gives birth to an heir. And yet Marie Antoinette seems fairly unconcerned -- she spends her time learning court etiquette, buying fans and shoes, gossiping with the other young women in Versailles, eating piles of sweets (and never gaining an ounce), and collecting a large number of pet dogs. She's obviously upset about the lack of consummation, but we feel no real tension or suspense.
The characters show very little depth or, in the case of Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI, personality. The movie is of course named after Dunst's character, not Schwartzman's, and yet it's difficult to understand what's going on when we can't determine the motivations of his character. Dunst plays Marie Antoinette as a flighty young thing who lives for parties. Judy Davis and Steve Coogan are standouts as the Comtesse de Noailles and Ambassador Mercy, who assist Marie Antoinette in learning royal etiquette and the ways of Versailles. Other actors seem obviously miscast -- Molly Shannon seems to have wandered in from another film.
Another difficulty is that the film does not show the passage of time well. Dunst is supposed to portray a woman in her early teens at the beginning of the film and her mid-thirties at the end, but she isn't convincing at either end of the spectrum. Her Marie Antoinette seems to hover somewhere in her early twenties throughout most of the film -- in the last half-hour, her makeup and way of walking are slightly altered to show that she's older, but we can't tell by how much. Their first child was born seven years after their marriage, but you'd never know that from watching the film.
In one scene after Marie Antoinette finally gives birth to her daughter, we see her escape to her little farm with her child. The servants at the farm carefully wipe the dirt off each egg in a chicken's nest, so that when the Queen shows her little girl the nest of eggs, everything looks perfect and clean. The movie Marie Antoinette is the same way. Hygiene in the late 18th century was not what it is now, and I've read about mice nesting in those huge pompadours, but we never see anything dirty or ugly. Marie Antoinette is continually taking baths during the film, so we know everyone looks and smells divine.
If the target audience of Marie Antoinette is supposed to be young women, how much will they know about the context of the film? In one scene, Marie Antoinette reads passages from Rousseau, exclaiming over how true she finds his words, not knowing that the influence of Rousseau's philosophy will lead to her downfall. Would most audience members catch that reference? Every time I saw the young princesse de Lamballe onscreen, I remembered the way in which she is said to have died and what allegedly happened to her remains (look it up, it's gruesome), but I'm not sure that this information is common knowledge.
But perhaps this is the point -- that this film isn't a standard biography, that the details of history are irrelevant. Marie Antoinette can have no spoilers, because all of us know what ultimately happens. The happy, laughing, pretty characters who take such pleasure in eating and shopping and gossiping are ultimately doomed. Do we need to see the abject poverty of the lower-class French at that time, or the wasted-away, faded Marie Antoinette as she stood before the guillotine? Marie Antoinette shows us something that history books and biographies usually overlook -- the behavior of the French nobility and their complete lack of awareness of any people not in their inner circles. By not seeing anything ourselves past Versailles, Paris ballrooms, and the French countryside, we too are drawn into that feeling of exclusivity. For nearly two hours, we are swept away by montages of excess, beautiful scenery and costumes, and the antics of pretty people whose greatest concerns are manners and mating. With its anachronistic soundtrack and focus on style over substance, Marie Antoinette feels like it shouldn't work, and yet it does.
[For different takes on the movie, you also can read Ryan's review or the review James wrote after the Cannes premiere.]