June 5, 2006
Sophia Coppola's new movie is worth seeing. I was impressed by how many historical moments she weaved into her 80's teen-angst stylized rendition of the Hapsburg princess-cum queen of France. The movie was shot on location in France with a good helping of Versaille, and the small chateau "Petit Trianon" which was renovated and given her. This definitely lent a historical sensibility despite the obvious modern style. But what is perhaps most provocative about this film is the way that Coppola reinterprets the life of Marie Antoinette, the classic scapegoat of the collapse of the French monarchy. In Coppola's eyes, Antoinette is a well-meaning, if childish, idyllic princess played by Kirsten Dunst whose practically impotent husband Louis-Auguste, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the real folly of the French monarchy.
The images of decadence in the French royal household, from the wonderfully malevolent mistress of Louis XV, to the gambling, champagne, clothes, shoes and more pastries than you could feed an army, are all rendered in this temptingly sumptuous "Pretty in Pink" meets "Clueless" montage, complete with a fantastic soundtrack. One has to wonder what Coppola is suggesting with this obvious parallelism. I am reminded most of Modonna's self-portrait as Marie Antoinette in her performance of "Vogue" for the MTV music awards.
One thing that must be said for Coppola's portrayal is that, true to the tastes of her subject in the film, she rigorously ignores any broader view of the historical situation in France, or the horrific downfall of the French royal families in the terror that followed the revolution. Instead, this depiction is entirely confined to Versaille, where only a couple of (very moving) scenes depict any interaction between the nobles and the commoners. It has become clear, at the movie's end, that the kingdom is lost, but there is no real sense of what this means. Instead, we find ourselves isolated, in a bubble of teenage giddiness–and maybe even teenage existential angst.
This is only Coppola's third film, and I would say that she has clearly demonstrated her capabilities in the craft of film-making. Her movies are heavily symbolic, moving and beautiful. But in this one, like the others, there is a sense that so much more lies below the surface, so much that the director is simply not willing to dive into. Perhaps it has something to do with Coppola's fascination for actresses, like Dunst, who themselves do not carry a real depth of character. This is painfully obvious in one scene where Dunst is supposed to have collapsed in agony under the pressure of not being able to bear a child. The camera artfully follows Dunst into her room with a close shot. But there is nothing there. No feeling.
I will say this, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the greater part of the movie is spent in suspense and tension over the incapacities of the royal couple to produce an heir to the throne. When these minor difficulties are finally overcome, Antoinette does produce a "son of France"–who will never be its king. Indeed, what preoccupied all of the nobles, and the pamphleteers at the time, was minor in comparison to the real impotence of the king of France to curb the hunger and poverty of his own people. Which is to say, that clearly the fall of the French monarchy was a symptom of a much larger problem then a couple of young, naive, rulers. And perhaps Coppola has captured this truth for us.