Off With Her Head
By Nick Pinkerton
Sofia Coppola, U.S., Columbia Pictures
Sofia Coppola’s tack for heading off the accusations of nepotism that greeted her nascent vocational fumblings—dabblings in acting, fashion, and smart-set hanging out preceded filmmaking—has been a daring gambit. As if realizing that she’d never fully live down supercilious judgments about her having been handed off a much-coveted career the way many kids come of age into car keys, she’s built a preemptive strike into her filmmaking. The lassitude and the rhapsody of poor little rich girls is Coppola’s connective theme, deliberately placed so front-and-center as to form a daring feint: “Well, there it is. So what?”
And, for the most part, it’s served her. Nobody wants to state the obvious, the result being that the obvious isn’t stated quite enough—A.O. Scott, in this morning’s New York Times: “It may be tempting to greet Marie Antoinette with a Jacobin snarl or a self-righteous sneer, since it is after all the story of the silly teenager who embodied a corrupt, absolutist state in its terminal decadence. But where’s the fun in such indignation?” (Sorry, A.O., we can’t all take the hard road and write gutsy copy like “The costumes, designed by Milena Canonero, are arresting; K K Barrett’s production design is appropriately sumptuous…”)
In the face of a shameless steamer like Marie Antoinette, I’d just as soon court repetition. So: in addition to displaying a rather glib, arch comic sense (the awkward pause seems to be, for the beginning of the 21st century, what the pratfall was to the beginning of the 20th; the same “you could hear a pin drop” schtick is currently hawking everything imaginable to the Conan-weaned 18-35 set during primetime commercial breaks), maladroit filmmaking that latches store-bought arty obliqueness to lastnightsparty.com vacuity, and a string of clumsy historical parallels (celebrity=royalty, or something), Coppola’s film is (all together now) solipsistic, shrilly melodramatic, and stunningly barren of human observation.
Before the chorus of “But that’s the point!” comes in, it’s time for a remedial lesson in irony. Coppola’s biopic of Marie Antoinette—with Virgin Suicides’ Kirsten Dunst overtly American in the title role—reinvents the historically-out-of-favor Queen as a gentle Hapsburg tween, barely ready to reign over a prom, beset by circumstances beyond her control, her effervescent life-force encroached on by expectations of early marriage and birthright. Wall-to-wall post-punk mixtape music, coupled with Dunst’s anachronistic “OMFG I’m ttly the Queen of France!?!” performance, sets this apart from powdery PBS fare; the film opens on the dagger-plunge staccato of Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It” (opening lyric: “The problems of leisure/ What to do for pleasure”), while Dunst’s princess lies supine on a divan, directing her tight little feline smile at us. In ransom-note Sex Pistols font, we receive the title; on promotional posters, that same typeface is subtitled by the tagline “The party that started a revolution.”
So, following the trail of these pop signifiers, what’s being put across here? Is Coppola’s movie, per Go4’s opening salvo, a snide assault on the fragile privilege of ennui? Does it, like the Pistols, connect the pop-historical dots between Jacobinism and Jubilee-era Britpunk? Or does it, as the tagline would suggest, offer a reconsideration of the “Let them eat cake” Queen of fatuous High School history as a royal revolutionary, shattering court protocol, sabotaging the outmoded social bathysphere she was born into, even as the exterior siege had begun?
The answer: all of that and none of the above—you see, the movie’s a veritable junk drawer of mismatched ideas. What it amounts to is a taxing two-hour parade of pretty pastries and Ms. Dunst collapsing backwards—”Le sigh!” —into frame, all with a depth of artistry and historical insight that lands it closer to Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” video than Stendhal. If there is a governing idea, it’s establishing that Marie arrived at Versailles at an age when most of us are badly handling our first buzz in a friend’s basement, wrenched from the womb of family into royal duty that knew no boundaries of privacy—though, not to seem all sans culottes, but when our Princess suffers through taking her morning toilette before an audience of courtiers, it’s worth remembering that plenty of her countrywomen were enduring the nightly racket of their parents fucking in their one-room hovel, among other mortifying indignities.
That the 18th century may’ve had ideas about privacy distinct from our own, that it regarded its adolescents—and its adolescents regarded themselves—differently than a contemporary teenager might; these are concepts that can’t coexist with Coppola’s conflation of Marie’s story with her own Cure-soundtracked youth (I imagine the young director-to-be, locked in her room: “Oh my GOD dad, I am SO not watching Captain EO AGAIN!”). And while there’s no doubt that Vienna and Versailles were worlds apart, would this new court really seem as extraterrestrial, even foreboding (see the elderly courtier out of Otto Dix, with ghastly spackled-on makeup) as Marie’s initial point-of-view perceptions render it? Q’orianka Kilcher’s first impressions of England in The New World aren’t half as discombobulated, but Malick’s artistry was to create a history—however factually suspect and airy—that was felt and lived-in; the anachronistic sacrilege of Marie Antoinette isn’t that Coppola filters her iTunes into another century, A Knight’s Tale-style, but that she never lets her cast and crew seem like more than out-of-time visitors on a palace tour—at home they feel like tourists.
To back up a bit: One of the wealthiest, best-coddled women of the 18th century is portrayed by a wildly overpaid, sparsely talented actress who always delivers lines as though she’s auditioning (hearing it observed that Dunst looks a bit like Smashing Pumpkins’ front man Billy Corgan got closest to the heart of what puts me off about her), while her isolation-by-status is reiterated with filler shots that anybody’s kid brother could tell you convey loneliness (crumpled in the corner, in long-shot; zoom out on Marie alone, dwarfed by an epic colonnade), silly woe-is-me shorthand that betrays the film’s pretense to “elliptical”/“useless beauty”/“freeform” jazz, which is tenuous enough as it is. And can we all agree that a handheld shot following someone hanging their arm out of a moving vehicle, curving their palm through the air stream, should be retired as the official shot of freewheeling, “unfettered” moviemaking?
Anyhow, it might be a little easier for me to accept Coppola’s empathy for her heroine if the realm of her understanding didn’t feel so hemmed in by the borders separating character and caricature. Whereas Marie is offered to us as a hapless and naturally exuberant child sacrifice, a sweet, typically callow girl, essentially blameless for the historical circumstances that marked her life and her memory, her betrothed, Louis the XVIth (Coppola cousin Jason Schwartzman) rarely rises above being a figure of fun: sexually inept, more interested in homosocial hunting trips than ravishing his virgin bride, silently mocked in dead-air scenes that amplify his dainty chewing at the dinner table and his banal hobbies—the Prince has a passion for keys and locks, which Marie’s brother (Danny Huston, also Hollywood aristocracy—are you digging this syllogism yet?) will later call on to illustrate a birds-and-the-bees talk.
The real Louis was every bit the victim of circumstance that Marie was—thrust onto the throne at 19, morose and temperamentally unfit for the only job that life offered him, very possibly sexually retarded because of genital anomaly, overshadowed in life, as in death, by his wife—but for the purposes of this film he’s essentially a punchline. Though Marie Antoinette implies that this Queen gave up everything that a woman could give for her subjects, Coppola’s film is filtered through adolescent narcissism: the world is divided between Self and the Rest, between Queen and courtiers—when the mob arrives outside Versailles, they remain an underlit, indistinct menace pitted against individuality itself. The movie is loaded with interesting actors—Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Marianne Faithfull, Molly Shannon, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, even a few seconds of Mathieu Amalric—but they rarely have anything to do other than supplement their Queen’s moods. Coppola, an observant curator of other people’s taste, casts all the right faces, just as she decorates her work with all the right songs; the problem is that she doesn’t know how to use them—nobody’s given room to interject individual life into their performance, and the filmmaking’s too literal-minded to imagine that a picture called Marie Antoinette could be about anything beyond, say, Marie Antoinette.
The sole exception is Argento, a fierce actress and herself a second-generation auteur, whose Eurotrash royal mistress “Madame” du Barry racks all this hazy piffle into sharp focus; the role is another throwaway, meant for easy laughs and an abridged lesson in court protocol, but Argento takes it in her teeth with weaselly tenacity. Her last appearance, casting a baleful backwards glance at Versailles after she’s been banished by the newly ascendant Queen, smites away any memory of Dunst—Argento knows she deserves this movie, that she goes after it with full-bodied insouciance, just as “Madame” du Barry goes after the crown.
Am I leaving anything out? Time passes, the Queen throws some great parties, flirts, gossips, smokes weed, has a fantasy shopping montage spree set to Bow Wow Wow, then gradually recedes into her Petit Trianon retreat, where she’s serenaded by her own personal quartet (the French band Phoenix; Coppola’s boyfriend is a member). From here we gallop through a historical panorama: the famous speech of Jacques-Louis David (Louis Garrel) before the National Assembly; the storming of the Bastille (scored to Heaven 17’s “[We Don’t Need This] Fascist Groove Thing”); Louis’s visit to a strife-wracked Paris, where he meets with members of the Assembly (Wolf Eyes, Deerhoof, Junior Boys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, and Grizzly Bear); and the royal couple’s last-minute reprieve from execution by a returning King Richard II (a late-film cameo by Sir Sean Connery, wearing a Mighty Lemon Drops shirt), after which they move to Silver Lake and Marie learns to silkscreen her designs onto tee-shirts and Louis becomes a freelance graphic designer. I may have been making some of that up.
Of course, all this talk of Marie Antoinette’s murky intentions is really a front; like most people, I can forgive a lot for the sake of beauty, and most of my compunctions would amount to a quibbling paragraph if this movie had visually ravished me. But apart from Argento, a few nice shots of Louis’s hunting hounds moving liquid-like over dewy grass, and the cueing up of a Strokes song so badly thought out that it’s slightly bracing, there isn’t much here to nourish the soul, film culture, or human understanding—unless you went in anticipating that “You just know the costumes are going to be cool,” in which case there’s absolutely no way you’ve negotiated this far in the review. The costumes are arresting, I should add, but Coppola’s lack of daring is despicable. An American filmmaker with any real guts would set their ode to the ruling class in the antebellum South. In summary, this movie’s one of those side-by-side Shakespeare update/translations for developmentally challenged teens, where “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” becomes “WTF I’m depressed :( ".