In Sophia Coppola’s previous film, “Lost in Translation,” there is an absolutely hilarious scene where Bill Murray is filming a TV commercial in Tokyo and the Japanese director is going on and on in Japanese giving him instructions. After he finishes, the translator turns to Bill Murray and says something like, “He wants you to smile more,” (or something extremely brief like that). It’s a very funny way to express how much of a message gets lost in translation. That scene comes to mind just now as I ponder Coppola’s more recent movie, “Marie Antoinette,” and what is wrong with it. It’s a very complex French story, but when done by an American film company with mostly American actors, it seems like something is lost in the translation.
It strikes me as a very typical American film, excelling at what American films do best, such as the craft of visuals, but failing in an area where American films typically lack: dealing with complexity. Another way to say that is that if filmmaking is both an art and a craft, Americans excel at the craft while foreigners excel at the art. And “Marie Antoinette” epitomizes this distinction.
So first, let’s talk about the good things. The film is a feast for the eyes; no doubt about that. Production design by K. K. Barrett is just stunning. Sets and costumes beautifully Baroque with gorgeous light blues and pinks. The cinematography takes full advantage of that. And filming much of the movie at Versailles itself definitely lends to the splendor of the piece.
The acting is excellent. Kirsten Dunst, in the lead role, is perfect as the woman who, over a period of 20 years, develops from the shy foreigner overwhelmed by the protocols of the strange court and a childish husband who cannot fulfill his marital obligation, to the ostentatious, over-indulgent queen who revels in her pursuits of pleasure.
But the bigger surprise here is Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI. Who knew that he could act? Having mostly played immature boys such as in “Shopgirl” and “Rushmore,” it was quite refreshing to see him take on this complex role of a shy young man ill-prepared for the responsibilities of running a kingdom.
The supporting cast, too, is worthy of note. Rip Torn plays the aging but still vigorous Louis XV and Asia Argento plays his mistress, the Comtesse du Barry. Steve Coogan is Marie’s loyal servant from Austria, Danny Houston plays her brother the Emperor Joseph who visits her in France once or twice, and Jamie Dornan plays a Swedish officer with whom Marie has an affair. Also worth mentioning are Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson who play catty courtiers.
There had been a bit of controversy over the anachronistic rock soundtrack. Purists were a bit upset and felt that Mozart might be more appropriate for the late 18th Century than 1980s pop songs like Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” which plays over a scrumptious montage of elaborate French pastries and court parties. But that didn’t bother me because I could see that Coppola was trying to draw parallels between the excesses of Versailles and contemporary material commercialism. (At least I think that’s what she was trying to do.) In fact, the film included a really quick shot of contemporary sneakers amongst all the period-appropriate shoes in the Queen’s wardrobe. (Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.) Coppola admitted in an interview that this anachronism was done purposely to make the point how similar Marie was to today’s fashion-obsessed teenagers.
Another thing that I found interesting about the film was the detail it went into to show court protocol and ritual surrounding everything. Even little daily routines like waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, taking a bath, and so on, are designed to pamper the princess/queen. And we can begin to see how someone thrust into such privilege might get that idea that she’s such an extra-special person, almost god-like, and can therefore overindulge to excess. She wasn’t born conceited; she was made that way by court protocol.
However, as I said before, there were quite a number of disappointments in this film. For one, I just didn’t buy the sudden transition Louis and Marie made from being this shy, awkward couple who couldn’t consummate their marriage to suddenly becoming confident, decadent rulers. I suspect that in real life it happened quite gradually over a period of 20 years, but in the movie it happened pretty much overnight.
And speaking of decadence, the excesses of the Louis XVI court as portrayed in the film didn’t seem anywhere near as excessive as the stories I heard. Sure, the lifestyle at Versailles was lavish, but, at least in this movie, not much more so than under the previous king. It didn’t seem quite enough to make a revolution over.
Another thing that bothered me was a real lack of politics. In fact, we only have two very brief scenes where the king is discussing foreign affairs with his advisors; and guess what the subject is in both meetings. Whether or not France should help the Americans in their revolution against England. I suspect Louis XVI had many, many different international issues to deal with, but the fact that this movie only mentions his concerns about America goes to the American-centric view American films take—that America is the only country in the world worth talking about. This harks back to Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” Although set in Japan, it’s not a movie about Japan but rather about two Americans lost in a culture they cannot understand nor go out of their way to try to.
My biggest problem with this movie, though, is that it is told entirely from Marie Antoinette’s point-of-view; because of that we get no hint how the people of France are suffering (except for one or two easily dismissed lines about a bread shortage). As a result of this isolation, the French Revolution appears to come out of nowhere. Now maybe from Marie’s point-of-view it did come out of nowhere. Maybe she was completely ignorant of how bad things had deteriorated outside the walls of Versailles; but for myself, as an audience member who comes to the movie with only an elementary understanding of French history, I would have liked to have seen more of the people’s suffering to help explain their revolution.
This is definitely not a movie about the French Revolution; rather it is a movie about a character. Now, I like character films, but how can you tell the story of Marie Antoinette without telling the story of the French Revolution? This film almost presents the French Revolution as if it was completely independent of her and she just sort of runs head-on into it at the very end, almost by accident. Like a random act of violence; she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Surely there is a much stronger cause-effect relationship between the French Revolution and the final king and queen of France than just random bad luck. But if the life of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution are intimately connected, you certainly don’t get that sense from this movie.
Except for a brief scene where the mob storms Versailles, we don’t experience the revolution. Neither do we get to experience that big, inevitable moment that we’ve all been waiting for at the end. The movie ends before we learn of Marie’s final judgment and fate. And if there is any kind of moral lesson from that about what monarchal excesses lead to, we never get the chance to learn it. Because in this movie, the revolution will not be televised.
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