“Let them have eye candy” pretty much sums up Sofia Coppola’s approach to her revisionist and modernist take on the famous royal airhead who in the end lost her head. It is far from unpleasant to watch an attractive cast led by Kirsten Dunst parading around Versailles accoutered in Milena Canonero’s luxuriant costumes to the accompaniment of catchy pop tunes. But the writer-director’s follow-up to her breakthrough second feature, “Lost in Translation,” is no more nourishing than a bonbon. Opening in France simultaneously with its Cannes bow, “Marie Antoinette” will depend for Stateside success in October release by Sony on its draw with teen girls and young women, who may warmly embrace the picture as a heady fantasy of luxury and riches.
Conceptually, Coppola has reconceived the tale of the Austrian princess sent to France at age 14 to marry the 15-year-old future king of France as one of a girl who would just rather have fun. Costumes and decor conform to correct historiography, but otherwise the film more closely resembles a story of a youngster moving to a new high school, with its environment of gossip and petty rivalries, than it does any previous screen account of pre-revolutionary France.
To her credit, Coppola makes it surprisingly easy to swallow her conceit of laying out momentous history against a backdrop of contempo tunes, largely by not dealing with the history at all. Aside from the mounting pressure on the young bride to produce an heir, there is very little plot here; palace intrigue, political strategizing, scandal and accounts of growing unrest in the country are all but forsaken, the better to concentrate on the repetitive rituals of royal life and to evoke the virtual cocoon in which she lives.
On its own terms, the approach succeeds. From the moment Marie Antoinette arrives by gilded coach at the French border and, in a historically correct scene, is required to strip entirely naked to divest herself of all things Austrian, the film evinces a symbiosis with its subject in its fascination with the trappings of privilege and the behavior of the upper class, and not a speck of interest in the chess game of diplomacy or conditions outside the immediate realm of concern. As a portrait of oblivious self-absorption, it’s letter-perfect.
With its tightly framed shots of Marie Antoinette’s arrival showing off the costumes’ fabrics in intimate detail, and with evident free rein to film all round Versailles, the film revels in its setting without ostentation. Mild comedy ensues from the presence of a large retinue, led by a bishop, presiding over Marie Antoinette and young Louis (Jason Schwartzman) bedding down on their wedding night, and persists in its scrutiny of the continued, and increasingly worrisome, failure by the teenage couple to consummate their marriage. When Marie Antoinette’s older brother Joseph (Danny Huston) comes all the way from Austria to educate Louis on successful bedroom conduct, one would dearly love to hear the conversation.
But here, as elsewhere, Coppola avoids writing, or filming, involved dialogue scenes, as if aware she can’t pull off anything too complicated. Despite the vast number of people onscreen in many sequences, scarcely any scenes feature sustained group dynamics, multiple moves, ambitious staging or numerous characters interrelating verbally. To get around this, she tends to attractively and straightforwardly film individuals or simple groupings and then lay in the desired content via voiceover snippets of letters, isolated conversational snippets or, better yet, songs that can simply be played over a brief montage of shots. It’s an easy-listening style of filmmaking, where the basic visual notes are hit but complexities, nuances and deeper meanings remain ignored.
To pull off such an approach, great flair would be a help. This is not forthcoming, so one must be content with watching the lovely, perfectly cast Dunst adroitly making her way through a succession of scenes in which not much more is asked of her than to effortlessly hold center screen for two hours — a task she handles as if it were second nature. Dunst’s Marie Antoinette reacts to the pressures of the court as if nothing all that significant were at stake and, later, adapts gracefully to the role of mother and queen, with time out for some fun at balls and the theater and a dalliance (historically questionable) with a Swedish count. Her happiest moments occur at her private preserve in and around Le Petit Trianon, where she luxuriates in well-manicured “nature” and coddles her adored children.
When “the mob” finally materializes, the movie is practically over; Marie Antoinette’s insulation from the common people and their discontent has been virtually total. Coppola avoids famous incidents that would normally make up the essence of drama: the affair of the necklace that so seriously stained her reputation, the chance discovery of the royal family as it fled; the king and queen’s imprisonment and eventual execution. High schoolers won’t be able to use info they learn here to pass any history tests.
Production looks plush without being extravagant. Some of the distinctive supporting thesps never really pop out of the backgrounds for lack of anything interesting to do, but several others have their moments. Despite his inescapable Americanism, Rip Torn projects vitality and a strong regal bearing as King Louis XV; Schwartzman grows appreciably into his problematic role as the initially disinterested, uncommunicative dauphin; Huston’s urbane self-confidence suits his royal role perfectly; and Steve Coogan’s wry circumspection gives the right edge to his role as the queen’s personal advisor.