Royal Pains

Washington City Paper | October 20, 2006
Eighteenth-century teen queen Marie Antoinette has gone down in history for a shallow saying that will be forever linked to her. Writer-director Sofia Coppola’s biopic of the French royal may come to be remembered most prominently by a superficial declaration itself: It was pretty enough to eat.

Coppola spins modern into Marie Antoinette, attempting to infuse the period piece with the giddy and rebellious spirit of a kid who wants nothing but to quell her inevitable boredom. Kirsten Dunst plays Antoinette, an Austrian (though American-accented) archduchess who, at 14, was married to the unattractive dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman) to cement a new alliance between the countries. Stripped of everything associated with home—including her beloved pug, Mops—the girl is thrust into the hushed world of Versailles. Antoinette is a bit freaked by the crowds anxious to both greet and judge her; more so when she discovers, for instance, that a circle of subordinates will go so far as attend to her when she gets ready for bed and awakes. A close eye is also kept for any proof of marital relations, ideally a pregnancy that would result in a male heir, especially after the king (Rip Torn) dies and Antoinette becomes queen at 19.

The palace would wait a long time: Because of the dauphin’s impotence, the couple didn’t consummate their relationship for seven years—and Antoinette was blamed. The staid prince all but ignored his wife; she was chastised whenever she slipped from the formal behavior expected of her. Living the life of an 80-year-old (or, in that time, a 30-year-old) both inside and outside the bedroom, Antoinette soon alleviated her personal hell by effectively saying a big screw-you to the fam and taking comfort in dancing, desserts, and shopping sprees. An affair with the Swedish Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan) helped, too.

Coppola laces her vision, which was allegedly booed at Cannes, with anachronistic touches that include Chuck Taylors underneath Antoinette’s gown as well as an attitudinal soundtrack including Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” (“This heaven gives me migraine/The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure”) and Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” (er, “I want Candy”). And Coppola pairs these tunes with flavorful details: The lavish Victorian dresses pop with colors such as violet and brick red, with similarly striking palettes accented with gold on carriages and palace décor. (The director was allowed to shoot in the actual Chateau de Versailles.) The sumptuous cakes and chocolates favored by the queen are, somewhat more bizarrely, highlighted in montages as well.

It all should add up to a tone that’s energetic and fun, yet the two-plus-hours Marie Antoinette is as empty as the calories the character consumes. Time sprints forward with little indication, and Antoinette’s demeanor seems to transition from sad, sad, sad to carefree in a hairpin moment we never witness. Coppola also attempts to portray the sense of loneliness that she so elegantly captured in Lost in Translation. One shot comes close: As Antoinette stands by herself on a large balcony, the camera pulls away as one of her mother’s awaited letters is delivered in voice-over (mum being Marianne Faithfull). But with no Bill Murray to express her thoughts to, we’re forced to read Antoinette’s mind—and though Dunst wears mournful expressions and does her best to break down in tearless sobs, her queen’s solitary moments simply fall flat. By the time Antoinette bankrupts the palace and must face rioters who have been going hungry because of her indulgences—resulting, though erroneously, in her “Let them eat cake” dismissal—you don’t feel for her collapse, because you never really enjoyed her highs. Antoinette does, however, look awfully pretty on the way to her beheading.

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