Marie Antoinette (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Three adjectives spring to mind when describing Marie Antoinette: odd, irritating, and tedious. (The last in that list could be replaced by "boring.") This is a movie that never gets to the point, perhaps because it doesn't recognize what the point is. As anyone knows who has spent any time studying 18th century France, Marie-Antoinette's story is an interesting one, provided one concentrates primarily on her post-Revolutionary life. Everything that happens before July 14, 1789 (the day of the storming of the Bastille) is a prologue; the real meat comes after. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to her, Sofia Coppola has chosen to focus on the prologue. What could have been adequately captured in 15-20 minutes of screen time drags on forever and, to further exacerbate matters, both leads are miscast. The film was booed at Cannes before apologists got to work saying it wasn't that bad. The initial reaction is more indicative of the reaction Marie Antoinette deserves.

In 1770, the 14-year old Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette (Kirstin Dunst) travels to France to marry the Dauphin, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), thereby cementing an alliance between the two countries. At first, Marie has difficulty adjusting to the protocol-heavy routines of her new position, and her only ally is Ambassador Mercy (Steve Coogan). Gradually, however, she grows into her role, accumulating friends such as Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) and Duchesse de Polignac (Rose Byrne), and making enemies, including Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), the mistress of King Louis XV (Rip Torn). Because of her husband's lack of prowess in bed, Marie's marriage remains unconsummated, which is cause for a growing concern about the lack of an heir. Try as she might, however, Marie cannot entice her husband to touch her when they retreat to their curtained and canopied bed at night.

MarieAntoinette is mostly about the Dauphine's adjustments to the customs of the French court and her attempts to conceive. The more interesting material, including a possible affair and the growing unrest of the common people, is left to the film's final 40 minutes. By then, a portion of the audience will have fallen asleep. The movie is somnambulant. It looks great, with impeccable period detail and glorious visuals, but the plot is stagnant. The lack of character development results in an uninteresting story. Plus, there's no villain to provide conflict. For a while, it appears that Madame du Barry might fill the role, but she is removed about half-way through the film, leaving a void.

Just because the main character is shallow does not mean the movie has to follow the same pattern but, in the case of Marie Antoinette, that's what happens. In fact, Marie is so dull that she is frequently overshadowed by the supporting characters, many of whom are more colorful and lively. These include King Louis XV, Madame du Barry, and Comtesse de Noailles, whose primary function is to give Marie etiquette lessons. Part of the problem is Kirsten Dunst's one-note performance, which is as lacking in range as it is in energy. The other part is the script, which fails to capture the French queen's humanity.

It's hard to decide whether Dunst or her co-star, Jason Schwartzman, is more ill-suited to the role. Both appear overwhelmed by their surroundings and neither succeeds in transforming their characters into living, breathing individuals. They duel not to capture the camera's attention, but to avoid it, leaving the spotlight to Rip Torn, Asia Argento, Rose Byrne, Judy Davis, and Steve Coogan. These are capable actors, but they cannot fill the cavity created by the lackluster interpretations of the leads.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Marie Antoinette is Coppola's choice of music. Instead of the usual classical stuff we might expect (although there is some of that), she employs contemporary numbers by artists like Bow Wow Wow, The Cure, and Adam Ant and the Ants. This results in "Opus 23" being followed by "I Want Candy." To say it creates a disconnect is an understatement. The movie's opening credits feel like the start of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was reminded of A Knight's Tale, which tried something similar with equally limited success. What I wrote then applies now: "[The movie] appears to have entered The Twilight Zone as authored by Monty Python." Much as I appreciate the virtues of both shows, that should not be viewed as a compliment.

Coppola's decision to truncate the story when she does causes Marie Antoinette to seem unfinished. History tells us what the Queen's fate was; this movie does not. In terms of its factual accuracy, Marie Antoinette should not be used as an historical reference. It massages facts to fit the story rather than the other way around. This would not be a bad thing if the resulting plot had a better focus than a rambling tour through Versailles during the 1770s and 1780s. For those who appreciated the elegance and character depth of Coppola's previous directorial efforts, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette is a disappointment of historical proportions.

Marie Antoinette (United States, 2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Steve Coogan
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Music: Jean-Benoit Dunckel, Nicolas Godin
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1