|Marie Antoinette (2006)
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, Marianne Faithful, Aurore Clement
Director: Sofia Coppola
It's not difficult to see why director Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” was subjected to scattered boos when it screened at the Cannes film Festival earlier this year. It’s not that the film is terrible, but more to do with the fact that the film rather successfully humanizes a woman that most French have been brought up to believe is practically the anti-Christ. One imagines a similar reaction to the film “Downfall,” which similarly humanizes Adolph Hitler, if it had debuted in Jerusalem.
Considering the subject matter – the last queen of a corrupt monarchy overthrown by peasants in the French Revolution – it’s not surprising that “Marie Antoinette” is going to be steeped in controversy. But ignore the squabbling and you’ll find a historical drama that centers on Antoinette’s journey from girlhood adolescence to adulthood – subject matter Coppola successfully tackled in her previous films “The Virgin Suicides” and more recently “Lost in Translation.”
Kirsten Dunst, who starred in Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” is given the task of bringing Marie Antoinette to life in the film. For the most part she is successful, particularly in the first half of the film when Marie is plucked from her native Austria at the age of 14, stripped of her possessions (including clothing), and married off to the King of France as part of a Franco-Austrian alliance. The audience can’t help but sympathize with Marie as she attempts to navigate the complicated and utterly ridiculous court at Versailles, to say nothing of the intense pressure of producing an heir to the throne when her husband is just as inexperienced as she is.
As the film moves into the second half, Marie grows older and more secure in her place as Queen. She begins taking advantage of the royal decadence provided to her by indulging in pleasures consisting of everything from food to fashion – spending an exorbitant amount of money as the rest of her country is taxed and subsequently starved to fund the court’s lifestyle and France’s interests in foreign wars (including the American Revolution as an attempt to hold Great Britain at bay).
Herein lays the strength of the film as Coppola shows us the microcosm that Marie has come to live in at Versailles. Isolated from the realities of the world, money literally has no meaning to her, so of course she is reckless with it. We see a woman who is so consumed with the formality of life at Versailles, and the pressures of ruling a country that she did not ask to rule, that she escapes to operas and parties and numerous other excesses just to keep alive the part of herself she knows is true.
“Marie Antoinette” begins to sputter in its last act as, revolution finally nears and the walls of Marie’s now self-made bubble begin to close in. The film seems to drag as Louis and Marie seek refuge in the palace hoping for the best. Those familiar with history know that impending doom awaits and thus the film becomes an exercise in patience only to have the film abruptly cut short as the couple flees Versailles. All the effort and time Copolla has spent up to this point in humanizing and building empathy for Marie seems for nothing as we are denied her final moments – a time when she reportedly showed her most human qualities in the face of her execution at the guillotine.
In the end, “Marie Antoinette” will most likely be regarded as a movie that fell short of its lofty goals, which isn’t too much to complain about when you think about it. The attempt, even if it does falter somewhat, is at least commendable, and the fact that the film was shot on location at the real Versailles adds vivid reality to the life lead by Marie Antoinette. At the very least the film provides an enlightening peak at an aristocracy that was ultimately crushed under its own weight.
The single-disc release of “Marie Antoinette” isn’t exactly overflowing with bonus material, but it does include a decent making-of featurette and a handful of deleted scenes.