Decadent royals demand lavish detail

'Curse,' 'Marie Antoinette' embellish directors' creative imagining of what might have been

An empress is draped in a 44-pound, lustrous gold brocade-and-sequined robe, emblematic of her determination to instigate an epic battle. A bejeweled and powdered queen parties and gambles in a singular haute-couture gown, in silk-covered private quarters.

Decadent, sumptuous and extravagantly gilt — these are the worlds inhabited by the dissolute royals of both Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower.” While Coppola’s court favors youthful, luminous pastels to accompany Versailles’ ornate interiors, Zhang’s imperial vision reverberates with gold, reaching almost psychedelic heights.

Although both films are grounded in a specific time period (18th-century France and feudal Tang dynasty-era China, respectively), neither filmmaking team sought to achieve a strict historicism; rather, each embellished the director’s creative imagining of what might have been, in order to serve underlying themes.

The opulence of “Curse of the Golden Flower’s” palace set, modeled in part after Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, serves in sharp contrast to the darkness of the story. “I used the gold and glorious colors as a criticism of the Chinese feudal system,” Zhang explains, adding that all aspects of the production design served two functions: to capture the private and public Tang period and to cloak the inherent evil within the characters.

Zhang collaborated with production designer Huo Tingxiao (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) for more than a year on the design, six months in prep and five months in production. The inner palace is a labyrinth of more than 50 different hallways, private quarters and public spaces, all framed by columns of artisan-made glass called liuli.

The intricacies and layers of the physical palace parallel that of the plot’s many convolutions. “We wanted to give viewers the impression that the inner palace is immense, spacious and expansive,” says Huo from Beijing. “We used different colors of liuli to emphasize size and scale and differentiate between each member of the royal family’s place within the palace.”

Size is important, too, as the massive doors and enormous plaza are meant to convey the power of the state.

“More is more,” was Zhang’s approach to the pic’s lavish wardrobe, says costume designer Yee Chung Man. “He wanted to make it over-exaggerated, glamorous and as flamboyant as possible.”

Tang dynasty-era fashions were the template; Yee stylized from there, including modern details on occasion. For example, Gong Li’s empress wears painted, false fingernails — adding an additional visual layer to an extreme close-up of her ill-fated chrysanthemum embroidery.

In “Marie Antoinette,” the young queen’s wardrobe includes a pair of Converse sneakers — not your typical 18th-century detail. That’s because, although the production design underscores the queen’s journey from teenage dauphine to isolated monarch, decisions were often made according to what “feels like her,” explains vet production designer K.K. Barrett. “We wanted to personalize it rather than document it; if something felt like the character we were building, then we felt justified in including it.” Marie Antoinette was expected to indulge, as her life was one of repose and leisure. All was for presentation.

“Sofia wanted it to be a very youthful film, without a hard line between current youthfulness and any parallel period in young girls’ life,” Barrett explains. Although circumstances force Marie to assume regal responsibilities, “girly” frivolity remains the film’s driving energy.

Marie’s colors are springlike — “light and airy” was Barrett’s intention — while the palette and lighting essentially follow a seasonal range, shifting from the cold winter of Austria to spring and summer, finishing in fall.

Instead of using antique furniture, pieces were re-created and covered in fresh fabrics to look new, as they would have been in her time. “We weren’t always historically correct,” Barrett says. “Although we knew what old patterns looked like, we wanted to bring (Marie) forward, as if we went shopping with her today: What would she have chosen?”

Costumes also captured Marie’s journey from innocence to awareness. Researching and then narrowing down the selection of materials and ideas was two-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero’s task.

“We could have done it many different ways, knowing the various stages of the 18th century,” Canonero advises. “We could have been more academically correct, more stylishly correct, but above all, the cut has to be correct.”

With an eye on the taste of today, Coppola reviewed Canonero’s sketches and suggestions with great intuition, precision and humor, the designer says.

Building such finely detailed, rich visuals comes down to collaboration, Canonero explains. “I tried to be in harmony with Sofia’s point of view, with the kind of movie she wanted to do, but it’s also the achievement of the cinematographer and the production designer in achieving the framework of the world she wanted to portray.”

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