Film review – Marie Antoinette (2006)

Marie Antoinette is a period film with an indi/teen film sensibility. Having already proven herself on The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation as a director with talent to burn, Sofia Coppola has possibly set herself her biggest challenge yet. Marie Antoinette tells the story of France’s controversial last queen not as a weighty historical drama about the French Revolution, but as the story of a teenage girl with strong modern sensibilities. Audiences expecting scenes of suffering peasants, enraged revolutionaries and climatic beheadings are going to be sorely disappointed.

Coppola’s film unfolds at a leisurely pace to give the audience a view of the world through Marie’s eyes. We experience her bewilderment with the rituals of the French aristocracy, her frustrations with her passionless husband Louis XVI and her boredom with royal life. Later in the film as she becomes increasingly reckless, hedonistic and indulgent it is difficult not to blame her – after all, she is young, her official life is dull and she has a ridiculous amount of money at her disposal.

Played to perfection by Kirsten Dunst, Marie is portrayed as a teenage girl with all the desires, attitudes and behaviours of a typical teenage girl. In fact Coppola has clearly worked so closely with Dunst to create a complex and angst free depiction of Marie that the remaining members of the extraordinarily talented and diverse cast appear to have been wasted. Worse yet is that the acting styles are extremely inconsistent with some actors doing overly affected performances (most notably Judy Davis and Rose Byrne) while others appear to have stepped directly off the set of a low budget slacker film (most notably Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI.) This comes as quite a surprise given Coppola’s outstanding work with actors in her previous films.

The inconsistent acting style is a significant reason why Marie Antoinette does not achieve the period-film-with-modern-day-sensibilities feel that it obviously wants to achieve. The other factor is that the inconsistent blend of period music with contemporary music is distracting. Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions (in particular The Cure’s haunting “All Cats Are Grey” over the end credits), the modern songs Coppola uses are not suitable for the scenes they are used in. Coppola’s taste in alternative music is evident but she has created a fantastic soundtrack at the expense of the overall film.

From a visual point of view, Marie Antoinette is stunning. The cinematography is a perfect balance of unconventionally framed and handheld shots with exquisitely balanced static shots that favourably compare to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. This cinematography articulates both the formalities of the French aristocracy, the tranquil beauty of the Versailles setting and the private emotional upheavals suffered by Marie at key points in the film (it is a credit to both Coppola and Dunst that such moments are completely angst free.) 

There is so much to like about Marie Antoinette but despite its many inspired moments it is ultimately a forgettable film – yet contradictorily, seeing it is still a rewarding experience. The value in this film is that the talent of its director, Sofia Coppola, is clearly on display even if the final product does not hit the mark.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2006
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