(19/10/06) – With only two features under her belt, Sofia Coppola has gradually established herself as a strong presence on the international film circuit. In crafting tender chamber pieces of candid emotional honesty, Coppola’s trademark sensibility for disconsolate cinematic prose has landed her acclaim as one of the most interesting filmmakers of her generation. Though in many ways apart, her first two features, The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, treaded similar territory, both examining coinciding paths of identity search and adulthood that has now become a feature of Coppola’s oeuvre. Completing her unlikely trilogy of young women ‘lost in transition’ between adolescence and adulthood is Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s third film and improbable period piece about the much maligned 18th century Queen of France who stepped to the throne at the tender age of 14 and lost her head at the hands of the French Revolution 15 years later.
As with everything Coppola lends her hand to, Marie Antoinette is a feast of visual extravagance and hedonist pleasures, and further proof that what she knows, Coppola does best. Whilst visually sumptuous and decidedly Coppolaesque in its tenor, however, Marie Antoinette is an emotionally demure affair.
Based on the book of the same name by Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette is, in essence, an egotistic period piece about seemingly nothing. The film doesn’t even present itself as a period piece per se, opting instead for a contemporary humanisation of the much hated queen that works only insofar as the visual elements of the movie are concerned and doesn’t succeed in sustaining the burden of it as a whole.
In accommodating for the lavishness of her set pieces and the flagrant vivisection of Marie Antoinette’s 18th century royal lifestyle, Coppola sidesteps much needed character substantiation in favour of visually startling but thematically vacant aesthetics that go little in the way of sustaining the disengaged storyline. A suitably cast Kirsten Dunst and her innate pale-skinned beauty and simmering charm manage to carry the movie throughout its somewhat extended two-hour runtime, though little of the merit can be extended to Dunst’s talent outside of her physical appeal as Coppola seems to prefer broad strokes to character personification, favouring quick cuts and voiceovers over any real conflict or studied dialogue. She also opts to keep a distance in her treatment of the source material, hence presenting Antoinette as an 18th century adolescent girl with little but parties, handsome boys and plush diamonds on her mind.
Beautifully shot on location in and around the Palace of Versailles, Coppola makes the most of the breathtaking locations and spares no effort in the lavish production and stunning cinematography, the movie’s strongest selling point. The otherwise brilliant cast, particularly Jason Schwartzmann as King Louis and Steve Coogan as the courtly Austrian ambassador, are given little to do other than furrow their eyebrows and deliver their lines as tersely as possible.
Even despite the movie’s vapid verbiage, Coppola still manages to do listlessness better than anyone else. Her Marie Antoinette is a glorious feast of decadent fashions, mouth-watering colours and sumptuous flavours interspersed with a soundtrack so alluring you sometimes wonder whether it’s a music video you’re watching. Just like its protagonist, the movie is extravagantly seductive, pieced together with a sensitivity so fine-grained its shortcomings are only too easily outweighed by a dichotomy of visual beauty and contemporary musical interludes.
Upon seeing Marie Antoinette, you soon wonder how Coppola managed to make a historical movie about a figure so pervasive in history books everywhere about anything but actual history. More than her previous two features, Marie Antoinette is a niche affair. For the rest of us, it’s a history lesson not worth retaking.
Marie Antoinette opens in the UK tomorrow, 20/10.