Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 10/20/06 with Some Edits.
When the name of Marie Antoinette is mentioned in some form of conversation. The first thing some will come to mind is the way she says to her starving people, "Let them eat cake". It's known to some people simply as the Queen of France who found herself in the early stages of the French Revolution where she and her husband King Louis XVI were beheaded in the year 1793. Throughout the years, he story has been told into several variations of biographies, including a widely praised one from Stefan Zweig, and films where in 1938 by director W.S. Van Dyke II with Norma Shearer in the title role. Another version appeared from France in 1955 which was lesser known than the famed 1938 version which based itself on Zweig's novell.
Then came another novel from historian Antonia Fraser where some claimed to be the most precise biography on the infamous queen. Fraser's approach of the novel indicated that the infamous queen was simply a young woman who found herself in the wrong place and wrong time to the point that she was unaware of the world outside of her own palace. The idea of disconnection was simply that American film director Sofia Coppola seems to have connected on in her own film version on Marie Antoinette's story.
Alienation is nothing new to Sofia Coppola's own work as a director where 1998's short Lick the Stars was about a girl who ends up alienating herself from her own middle school clique. Her 1999 film adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides was a dreamy, teen tale of five young girls trying desperately to connect with young boys only to be imprisoned by their strict parents. Coppola's first feature-length film starred Kirsten Dunst in the role which moved Dunst away from child and teen stardom to more young adult roles. Then in 2003, Coppola gained her biggest film hit to date with her sophomore feature, Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson about an actor and a woman who find themselves unhappy in their own marriages while being alienated in the aura of Tokyo.
The film gave Coppola her biggest acclaim while winning her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as becoming the first American woman nominated for Best Director. Also nominated as a producer in the Best Picture category, Lost in Translation propelled Coppola's career as well as her mark as a visionary. Though some were critical of the film's slow, elliptical style and its lack of dialogue, there were those who found it to be one of the best films of that year. Those closest to Coppola knew that she wanted to do a film biopic on Marie Antoinette, which originally was supposed to be her second film, but thanks to Lost in Translation. She finally went ahead with her own biopic.
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola while taking notes from Antonia Fraser's novel, Marie Antoinette is a revisionist biography on the young woman who would become Queen of France who would later embark on extravagance and scandal that lead to her beheading in the French Revolution. Playing the role of the doomed queen is Coppola's Virgin Suicides star Kirsten Dunst in the title role. In her film version, Coppola chooses to expose everything that surrounded the young queen's life including the stories of her associates, her marriage to the shy King Louis XVI, and the various, legendary rumors about her including an affair with a count named Axel Fersen. With an all-star cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Marianne Faithfull, Steve Coogan, Rip Torn, Asia Argento, Rose Byrne, Shirley Henderson, Judy Davis, Mary Nighy, Molly Shannon, Danny Huston, Aurore Clement, and Jamie Dornan. Marie Antoinette is a surreal, yet enchanting film from Sofia Coppola.
1768 in Austria as Queen Maria Teresa of Austria (Marianne Faithfull) has decided to send her youngest daughter Antoine to marry the Dauphin of France in Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) as a sign of unity between France and Austria. Accompanied by Austrian ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan), her two courtiers, and her pug dog, Antoine is taken on a trip where she meets Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) just before she is to meet the king and his grandson. Removed of all of her traces of Austrian clothing including her dog and courtiers, she is now worn a new French dress and is taken in a French carriage. On the island where she is to meet King Louis XV (Rip Torn), she is formally introduced to the king, his shy, awkward grandson Louis XVI, as well as many relatives including two gossiping aunts in Sophie (Shirley Henderson) and Victoire (Molly Shannon).
Upon arriving in the palace of Versailles where she is introduced to the French court in a lavish, extravagant wedding viewed by all, she is now a part of France and becomes Marie-Antoinette. On the night she and Louis XVI is to consummate their marriage, nothing happens and nothing will for seven years. The shy, awkward Louis XVI spends his time hunting and making keys while using food to purge his anxieties. Meanwhile, with only the Duchess of Polignac (Rose Byrne), Princess Lambelle (Mary Nighy), and Comtesse de Provence (Clementine Poidatz) as her allies and fellow mistresses, Marie has to contend the emerging gossip from Sophie, Victoire, and Duchess de Char (Aurore Clement) along with the presence of the king's mistress in Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Largely due to Louis' shyness, the gossiping has become troublesome as Ambassador Mercy reminds her that she must consummate the marriage to create an heir that would unify France and Austria.
Even as the Comtesse de Provence gives birth to a son, Marie chooses to escape all of the pressures with lavish clothing, shoes, and stuff where she preferred to be a girl and have fun. While being reminded of everything from the Ambassador and the letters of her mother, Marie chooses not to think of the political implications while slowly, she and Louis try to form a relationship despite his shy behavior. Even to the point where they would go to the opera where her behavior would cause a stir and later praise while going to masked parties where she would meet the mysterious yet dashing Count Axel Fersen (Jamie Dornan). Returning from the party, news have emerged that the king was falling ill while Madame du Barry has officially left Versailles to the delight of Marie and her court. When King Louis XV has died, Louis XVI is now king as he prayed to God to protect him and his wife as they felt that they were too young to reign.
Now that she's Queen before turning 20, Marie chooses to create a more youthful court surrounded by her friends and courtiers while leaning towards her excess in clothing and hair with help from Leonard (James Lance). With the pressure mounting to create an heir, Marie’s brother, Emperor Joseph (Danny Huston) decides to help out in giving his brother-in-law some advice to help his sexual matters. The plan worked though Marie gave birth to a girl in Marie Therese (Lauriane Mascaro at age 2, Florrie Betts at age 6) while the King unwisely makes a decision to send aid to America during the American Revolution as a resistance against England. To spend time away from the politics of Versailles, the king helped create a new palace home for Marie known as the Petit Trianon. It was a place where Marie would entertain herself and her friends along with a small cottage and farm for everything she needed while wearing simpler clothing. With the American Revolution going on, Louis invited several soldiers including Count Fersen for a honorary contribution as Marie engages in an affair with Fersen in the world of the Petit Trianon.
After Fersen's departure, Marie still has loving feelings for Louis where his decision to aid the Americans in their revolution proved to be costly. Even with the spending of all of the things that Marie spent on dresses, objects, and things including the Petit Trianon has put France into financial troubles. The timing couldn't have been worse in the years as Marie's mother and one of her children both died in different areas. At first of hearing the troubles including a supposed infamous comment of "let them eat cake", Marie ignored what was going on. Then as things got serious, Marie and Louis realize that their future was becoming bleaker where Versailles was no longer safe as they eventually would meet their doom.
Anyone who knows the story of Marie Antoinette can be interpreted as a young woman who has no care in the world and an infamous comment led to her doom where she was eventually beheaded amidst the French Revolution. From the mind of Sofia Coppola, it's an interpretation of a young woman unaware of the world outside other than her own world of monarchy in France and Austria. Taking inspiration from the novel by Antonia Fraser, the film is not really about historical but more about a young woman in the transition of her own life. While Marie Antoinette isn't in the same environment as other Coppola heroines like the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides or Charlotte in Lost in Translation in terms of their situations and what they were dealing with. Coppola sees Marie as a young girl who is stuck in her own girlhood and once she becomes a woman, it becomes too late as she is forced to confront the people of France.
Another interpretation is in the form of the second half of the film where once King Louis XV is gone along with several old courts, youth takes over as they just want to have fun while being unaware of the outside world. The old advisors, courts, and such are forced to watch in the sidelines trying to get the young people including the king on what's going on France. Yet, the result is that Louis XVI is surrounded by people who only care more about France's pride rather than the people that led to the dissolution of their monarchy. Still, Coppola isn't too interested in politics nor choose to take many of the historical context of Marie Antoinette's life too seriously. One incident of Antoinette's life that isn't discussed and probably was a good idea is the famous incident about a jewel necklace that was discussed years ago in a film called The Affair of the Necklace starring Hilary Swank and Adrien Brody.
The lack of serious historical context will upset very serious history buffs though Coppola does tell the story wisely with the film’s first act being about Marie's arrival into France and the pressure to create an heir for France. The second act being about her escape into fun, Louis XV's death, and the arrival of Petit Trianon. The third act features legendary yet debated affair with Count Fersen along with Marie's role of being a mother and the fall of Versailles and its monarchy. The result of the storytelling is elliptical to play to the times which is a similar strategy that Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon chose since time moved slower. Though some parts of the story do drag and get repetitive, only to convey the emotions of what Marie and Louis XVI are going through in the seven years. It's a strategy that is crucial to the storytelling. Then there's the dialogue where half of the dialogue is spoken in a 18th-Century language with French accents on some parts. The rest is more modern to give an interpretation that is something a modern audience can relate to. It's nothing original since Martin Scorsese used the same approach for 1988's Last Temptation of Christ where he wanted a lot of the biblical context to be something that can be heard in the corner of a city street. Coppola's approach is similar since a lot of the gossiping and conversations are something you would hear anywhere today.
The rest of the film in terms of its writing, like Lost in Translation, is not dialogue-driven since half of the film has a lot of non-dialogue moments in rather to show expressions and emotions of what is going on and everything. This is where Coppola is at her strongest when she's a director. Taking an observant view of what everyone is doing, it has a dreamy yet surreal quality of the world of Versailles where the film is shot entirely in Versailles. With most of the film done in hand-held, it's presented from a point-of-view where at first, everything is foreign yet once the story develops, it becomes familiar yet surreal. With the kind of trademark shots of moving transportation from the outside, shots of leaves looking up, Coppola really goes for a dreamy approach to the world of Versailles yet make everything seem completely unreal in what is going on. Yet, the shots are beautiful in the same way that it can be described in some scenes as Malick-esque. Overall, despite flaws with the story and the interpretive approach, Sofia Coppola has proven herself to be a strong, visionary director.
Longtime cinematographer Lance Acord helps Coppola in her worldly vision with wonderful, long exterior shots that are breathtaking in the epic scope of what Versailles is with several shots of blue and green that is a trademark of Acord's work. The interior set-ups aren't similar to the natural-lighting approach of Barry Lyndon but are given great fluidity to the colors of the dresses and floors along with the spacious look of the palaces while the film's opening shot with soft lenses is presented in a wonderful yet surreal way from the talented Acord. Production designer K.K. Barrett along with set decorator Veronique Melery and art director Anne Seibel probably give some of the best production design by using not just several of the same props in Versailles but everything looks 18th Century with an edge and look that is authentic with the times. Legendary costume designer Milena Canonero, who won an Oscar for her work in Barry Lyndon, proves her mastery in the film's look with shiny, excessive dresses that definitely tell the story. Canonero's design where the Austrian clothing is simpler as opposed to the dresses of France where the sides are bigger and springy while the men's clothing as the costumes not just play to the time but have life as Canonero does amazing work.
Editor Sarah Flack brings a wonderfully stylized yet elliptical editing style that is crucial to the film's 125-minute running time. With fade-outs, jump-cuts, and perspective cuts, the film flows naturally to the times as it serves to the serenity of the film's first act, the energy of the second, and the chaos in the third and final act. Sound designer Richard Beggs, a longtime associate to the Coppola family, does some amazing work in the sound design where the noise of church bells, organs, and voices are wonderfully mixed as well as the atmosphere of Versailles. Beggs is a genius with sound as his work is amazing to convey everything that goes on, even to convey silence in the film's final moments as Marie and Louis await their doom.
Supervising the film's unconventional soundtrack is longtime Coppola associate Brian Reitzell. A mix of classical, baroque, post-punk, new wave, electronic, and ambient music, Reitzell creates a soundtrack that is traditional to period films and radical in some ways to that genre. While the use of classical pieces that includes elements of baroque and operatic music not only works for the time but most of all, the emotions of what's going on. Then there's the music of the new wave and post-punk movement from the likes of the Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Gang of Four, Adam Ant, New Order, and Bow Wow Wow. While it's nothing new since A Knight's Tale did the same thing with rock music to make it momentum-building and for celebration. The approach Coppola and Reitzell did was to convey an energy of what the characters are going through like the masked ballroom scene has an energetic cut from Siouxsie & the Banshees that could've been played in those times but in a different form of music style. It's the energy that creates the intensity while two cuts by Bow Wow Wow are remixed to more energetic heights by the reclusive Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine.
Other stuff from Phoenix, Air, Squarepusher, Radio Dept., Aphex Twin, and Dustin O'Halloran are widely diverse since Air and Phoenix lean more towards classical, baroque Style while Squarepusher and Aphex Twin go for more ambient territory to convey the atmosphere and tone of what's going on in the story. The soundtrack for the most part, doesn't play like a gimmick. Towards the third act, the approach becomes grating when an appearance from the Strokes on the song What Ever Happened? really starts to get old as it's the one track that doesn't fit in with the rest of the soundtrack. Still, it's wonderfully conceived.
Now we come to the film's large, ensemble cast that includes notably small performances from Coppola associate Aurore Clement, Al Weaver, James Lance, Tom Hardy as an advisor named Raumont, the band Phoenix in a role as a band in the Petit Trianon, and the legendary Marianne Faithfull as Queen Maria Teresa, who gives some great voice-over work through letters in her brief role as Marie’s mother. Clementine Poidatz, Mary Nighy, and Rose Byrne are great as Marie's mistresses who give memorable performances and jokes about men and such that audiences can relate to. Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson are also funny as the gossiping women of the court who play like modern-day mean girls while Asia Argento makes a great impression as the devilish Madame du Barry who wants to be acknowledge while being very scandalous with her own dreary style of clothing. Jamie Dornan is excellent in the somewhat, Trip Fontaine role of Count Fersen as a man who is handsome and flirtatious in ways that women would swoon for.
Judy Davis is great as the Comtesse de Noailles with her duty to serve and give advice on behavior to Marie. Steve Coogan is great as Ambassador Mercy who is the man who tries to remind Marie about her role and realities of the world as Coogan is great in his restraint. Danny Huston is also excellent as the wise, helpful Emperor Joseph who has a great scene with Jason Schwartzman involving an elephant that shows his role as a straight man. In a role that was supposed to be given to the legendary French actor Alain Delon, Rip Torn is funny as the likeable King Louis XV with his brash behavior and fraternal role in how he cared for Marie and Louis XVI while being a man with his own vices. Jason Schwartzman gives an amazing yet restrained performance as the shy Louis XVI who acts very awkward in many ways. While Schwartzman is a natural comedy actor, he brings a lot of that and more into a man who is scared of his role as king and husband. Schwartzman brings a real, natural anxiety to the role that is really one of his best performances from an actor who doesn't get taken very seriously.
In what could be the best role of her career, Kirsten Dunst really captures the spirit and vibrancy of Marie Antoinette as Dunst gives her character much more than she is perceived. Dunst definitely adds an innocence to her character early on while having a personality that people could like despite the fact that she's unaware of the real world. Dunst really brings more of her depth as an actress in some very, heavy emotional scenes while getting to act natural as a person who isn't a monster that some will claim. It's really an amazing yet complex performance from Dunst as she makes Marie Antoinette a young woman caught up in a world that she is really unaware of.
Now that Coppola has finished a trilogy of young women dealing with their own emotional transitions and alienation, it's clear that it marks an end of sorts for Sofia Coppola as she is about have a daughter born at the end of the year. Despite mixed reviews at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival as well as reaction to its revisionist, historical approach, Marie Antoinette remains a very strong, engaging, yet surreal film from Sofia Coppola. While it's nowhere near the dreamy innocence of The Virgin Suicides or the emotional yet spiritual drama of Lost in Translation. Marie Antoinette should stand as one of her finest work despite what people think. If there is someway to sum up the Lisbon girls, Charlotte, and Marie. They are young women who aren't sure what to do in their own environment and place in their own life. While Charlotte ends up being the only character that has a remnant of hope, the rest end up not getting past that. So, it's a very melancholic trilogy that Sofia Coppola has created since two of the stories are about young girls wanting to reach a part of their life while in Marie, it's about a woman who seems to lived it all only to be forced into the dark world of reality.
***Updated DVD Tidbits 3/27/07***
The Region 1 DVD for Marie Antoinette from Sony Pictures presents the film in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio for anamorphic widescreen. Also presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital in both English and French plus their respective subtitles. The DVD includes previews for films like Dreamland, Sam Raimi's upcoming Spider-Man 3, Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction, Premonition, The Holiday, and the soundtrack to Marie-Antoinette. Two trailers appear for the actual film. First is the 2005 teaser featuring New Order's Age Of Consent playing in the background. The second is the U.S. theatrical trailer which is more energetic and presented in the same, American style with cuts by Aphex Twin, Gang of Four, and New Order's Ceremony. The U.S. is excellent though is a bit weak compared to the European trailer released in the Spring of 2006.
Three special features come in the Region 1 DVD. First is the 30-minute making-of special directed and shot by Eleanor Coppola, Sofia's mother. The making-of documentary features interviews with Sofia, her legendary father/executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, cast members, collaborators, and novelist/historian Antonia Fraser. In the doc, Sofia reveals her intentions into making the film where she didn't want to go for a typical, historical period piece but rather a film about character and a real-life human being. Francis Ford Coppola, Judy Davis, and Steve Coogan talked about the infamous "let them eat cake" comment that was never really said. The press just exaggerated as well as other stores which some were true. Shot on location in Versailles, Coppola and production designer K.K. Barrett talk about bringing furniture and drapes to use for the palaces since the real furniture in Versailles can't be used. Yet, with the help of consultant and Versailles historian Dominique Avart.
One of the prominent profiles in the documentary is costume designer Milena Canonero whose work in Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon won her an Oscar. For her work in this film (which she won another Oscar), Canonero took the same approach while bringing more life to the clothes and color that would bring new energy to the costume period dramas. Danny Huston said that those films often feel weighty and trapped in their own genre. When discussing the music as well as Jamie Dornan being the Adam Ant version of Count Fersen, Sofia talks about the New Romantic movement which was directly inspired by 18th Century decadence and reveled in its look and style. It was in the New Romantic movement that also became a reaction towards the fall out of punk rock in the late 70s. The casting is discussed where Sofia and Antonia Fraser said that the people in Versailles were eccentric for which, made sense to have a Texan like Rip Torn play King Louis XV and the Italian Asia Argento as Madame du Barry. Marianne Faithfull and Kirsten Dunst were both cast largely due to the fact that they both have Bavarian backgrounds. Faithfull talks about her own family tree which is descended from Austrian royalty.
Fraser talks about Dunst, whom she was impressed by and felt that she was perfect to play Marie Antoinette because Dunst has a German background and has the same jaw line that Antoinette had. Dunst talked about the acting which, she was happy to not do an accent. While some actors chose to, it was in spirit of collaboration for the actors to feel natural and give their own interpretation of the characters they play. Cinematographer Lance Acord talks about the lighting schemes for the film which differentiate in several sequences. From the opening sequence in the Austrian palaces which were darker in contrast to the many scenes in Versailles. For the Petit Trianon phase, Acord goes for more natural lighting, handheld, and looser camera work to convey her energy. For the final sequences, even darker colors and shades to convey her own emotions. Overall, this is a fascinating documentary by Eleanor Coppola.
Two deleted scenes appear in the DVD with each introduction text from Sofia on why they were cut. First is an opera sequence shown after Louis XVI's meeting to give aid to the Americans in the American Revolution. The opera sequence shows Marie presenting a German opera to the people of Paris that is followed by a letter from Ambassador Mercy to Queen Maria Theresa. Coppola explained that it was cut due to the fact that there was one too many opera scenes and that the other two, one right early in the film and the other in the third act were to convey were Marie was to the public at the time. The second deleted scene is Marie's return from the Petit Trianon after Count Fersen's departure. It's a sequence played to a piano track by Aphex Twin, the scene conveys Marie's isolation in Versailles while she's shot entirely in dark blue with everyone else in more, sepia-like colored. It's a great sequence but Coppola cut it because she felt that it was too self-pitying.
The final special feature is called Cribs with Louis XVI which is a parody of the show Cribs. With Jason Schwartzman playing his character, Louis XVI gives a tour of Versailles. Shot by Roman Coppola, Louis (being all hip-hop and in costume) starts off in the Hall of Mirrors while revealing the bedroom that he and Marie sleeps in. Shows off all of the paintings. All in the accompaniment of some cheesy music by Roger Joseph Manning Jr. It's pretty funny while showing a bit of what is inside Versailles. While the Region 1 trailer has some nice features. It's only minuscule to the French DVD box set that includes another disc filled with the same features and more including Sofia's short film for Lick the Stars back in 1998. Also included are a fan and the French book translation of Antonia Fraser's biography on Marie Antoinette.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
In the end, while it's not a perfect film or a disaster, Marie Antoinette is still one of the most interesting and engaging films of 2006. Thanks to an all-star cast led by Kirsten Dunst in the amazing title role along with a dedicated film crew, this is a movie that people will love and hate. While history buffs might be upset over the lack of historical context presented in the film. It's a film that does play with the rules about the idea of bio-pics. Some audiences might love the film for its lush presentation, lavish costumes, and radical approach to music because it's unconventional. Yet, it's a film that isn't for everyone. In the end, Marie Antoinette is still a remarkable film from Sofia Coppola.
Sofia Coppola Films: Lick the Star - The Virgin Suicides - Lost in Translation - Somewhere - The Bling Ring - A Very Murray Christmas - The Beguiled (2017 film) - On the Rocks - Priscilla (2023 film)
Sofia Coppola Soundtracks: Air-The Virgin Suicides - The Virgin Suicides OST - Lost in Translation OST - Marie Antoinette OST - (The Bling Ring OST) - (Priscilla OST)
Sofia Coppola Essays: Sofia Coppola: The Videos and Ads 1993-2008 - LIT 5th Anniversary Essay - The Auteurs #1: Sofia Coppola
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