Monday, August 27, 2007

Marie Antoinette

This weekend the Girlfriend and I sat down to watch, with some small amount of excitement, Marie Antoinette. The excitement came from director Sofia Coppola, of whom I would consider myself a fan after her first two, amazing films. The Virgin Suicides, which I was completely ready to dislike, ended up being a haunting, melancholy and beautiful meditation on that last summer before discovering sex and 'growing up', with an absolutely brilliant soundtrack. The scene where the boys call the isolated Lisbon girls and they hold an entire conversation using only the records they play into the phone was one of the best uses of popular songs in a movie I've seen in awhile. Lost In Translation was, to me, even better, with a bittersweet romance that is no less real because it is never consummated. In fact, it feels more genuine because the two main characters, so obviously falling in love with each other, never become physical. The relationship between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson is one of those fleeting romances that is so important because of it's fleeting nature, inspired as much by time place as by actual attraction.

Sofia Coppola's two big obsessions would be women ignored or mistreated, and the way time and place informs her characters. Indeed, from Virgin Suicides to Lost In Translation time and place became more important, and the character's less exposed. This doesn't mean that the characters were ill-defined, merely that the specifics of their lives were conveyed in very small, but illuminating moments, whereas the location of Tokyo became a main character itself. Ms. Coppola continues this trend in Marie Antoinette, the first of her films that I didn't downright love. Where Lost in Translation had very well defined characters and silences that were just as expressive as dialogue, Marie Antoinette treats it's characters as vague place holders, there to hold the viewers eye as the film explores the place and time.

Dunst, as Marie Antoinette, plays a variation on her character from the Virgin Suicides. A young woman just growing into her sexuality who is kept virtual prisoner, through a combination of personal neglect from her family and husband and nagging attention from various court members. Kirsten Dunst may be a bit too old to be considered on the verge of sexuality, but in a world where thirtysomethings can play high school students, it isn't a big stretch. In the film, Marie Antoinette isn't an elitist, self absorbed snob, uncaring towards the poor and disillusioned just outside her door. Instead she is a young girl, thrown into a world built entirely around providing for her, doing everything for her, and denying her the simple act of dressing herself. In this world, with a husband who will barely acknowledge her, let alone become romantic, and with no real friends only rich, bored hangers on, she retreats into what is deemed acceptable behavior. And this includes overindulging in sweets, jewelry, clothes and shoes. Eventually, as is historically infamous, she becomes a little too indulgent, and people begin to see her as the epitome of everything that is wrong with the French ruling class.

By now you will be aware of the fact that this movie features a soundtrack comprised of 80s pop songs, such as Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy, and tracks from The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. This is far from the only anachronistic touch. At one point a character is seen wearing a pair of Converse tennis shoes, and the dialogue is never what you would call 'period accurate'. Everyone seems to have a theory as to what this signifies. Roger Ebert eloquently supposed that this was a way to bring the past into the present, because too many period dramas seem to make their characters aware of living in the past, when to them it was always the present. The majority consensus is that this only paints parallels between Marie Antoinette and other rich, spoiled children of today, such as Paris Hilton or Nicole Richie. During a scene in which Marie has a small emotional breakdown to the sounds of the Strokes, I could only imagine that she was born into the wrong era, that she would be much better suited to the 80s. I don't mean this to say she is too 'headstrong' or 'independent' or whatever is usually meant when people say someone was born ahead of their time, I mean simply that in this film, Marie Antoinette is not suited for 1700s France, whereas in our time, she may have actually become a well adjusted young woman, given the chance to live without constant royal interference.

Obviously, this film's view of Marie Antoinette is much more sympathetic than the popular opinion, but it doesn't do a very good job of convincing the audience. Perhaps the film didn't portray her as such a cipher, with no clearly defined desires or wishes other than to be happy and carefree. She isn't alone in this, Louis the XVI might as well be a coat hanger, and the only character who has a clear desire is Asia Argento's Madame du Barry, an ex-prostitute and mistress to the king who is vying for a title.

I think, with Marie Antoinette, I can admire the aesthetics, and appreciate what Ms. Coppola is trying to do, but I don't think I actually enjoyed it. I wouldn't turn down the chance to see it again, and refine my opinion, see if I might have missed something crucial, but I'm not in a huge hurry to do so. For now, I'm willing to lay the fault of my dislike at myself, and say that Sofia Coppola has made an interesting, visually appealing, and watchable movie that I just didn't get.

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