A friend of mine who had seen Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette before me said, "If you don't like Barry Lyndon, you won't like this." There's wisdom in that, as Kubrick's opinion-splitting 1975 adaptation of Thackeray is definitely an inspiration point for Coppola's film. Lyndon is a common Irishman who works his way up the social ladder, traversing the intricate pecking order and lustily biting into the upper crust to get to their opulent filling. Coppola's liberal biopic is the female B-side to Thackeray's story: a teenaged girl from the Austrian Royal Family is married off to the crown prince of France to seal an alliance between the two countries. Once there, she discovers that the Royal Court is made up of bored people tangled up in their own preposterous social mores. Overcome by their ennui, she resorts to becoming one of them, spending her days drinking champagne, eating pastries, and trying on shoes. Eventually, her malaise turns into national debt and then revolt.
Marie Antoinette moves at a languorous pace. Some might call it dull, just as detractors of Coppola's previous film Lost in Translation tried to label it as such; yet, Coppola has such complete and utter control of her films, I feel dismissing Marie Antoinette on that basis is to miss the point. Back when Barton Fink came out, I similarly dismissed the Coen Bros.' cult classic because it felt too much like having writer's block, and it was only when I realigned my thinking to give them the credit for having that exact intention in mind that I came to understand what a brilliant film it was. So it is with Sofia Coppola's movies. Marie Antoinette moves slow because that's the way life for the teenage queen moves. We praise action movies for putting us in the experience of its heroes, for causing us to feel the thrills of their exploits, and so should we praise a period piece about malaise for lulling us into the same feeling of sleepy boredom. Which isn't the same as being bored, because as the Pet Shop Boys might say, Marie Antoinette is never being boring; rather, Coppola wraps us in her mood, hypnotizing her audience so that we, too, are part of the event.
As a reward for sticking with her, Coppola gives us gorgeous costumes, intricate sets, and the ridiculousness of the pomp and circumstance that is Marie Antoinette's life. Kirsten Dunst is spectacular as the title character, sliding from naïve and hopeful girl to disappointed wife and straight into the frivolous queen who will seek pleasure where she finds it. It's no coincidence that most of the characters are silent for the first two stages of Marie's cinematic life. Barely a word passes between Marie and Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, Shopgirl). They aren't doing anything, so they have nothing to say. The future king is already acting like a befuddled old man, obsessed with obscure trivia about locks and keys (an amusing hobby that leads to a hilarious scene where Louis is schooled in the ways of the world by Marie's brother, as played with a wry tongue in his cheek by Danny Huston). Even the court barely communicates above a whisper, finding little to discuss but idle gossip. Dare I say the long periods of sitting and staring and saying everything while speaking nothing are comparable to similar moments of silence in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky?
And then things change. Midway through the picture, Marie Antoinette explodes with color and sound. The queen discovers the joys of indulgence and rebellion, and her emotions are unleashed. It is here that Coppola amps up her soundtrack, using the anachronistic music that raised so many eyebrows when the early trailers for Marie Antoinette were released. When Marie, Louis, and their friends sneak off to a masquerade ball, the theatre speakers light up with the sound of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bow Wow Wow, and New Order. Coppola chooses each song carefully, editing her images to fit the rhythm and mood of the tune. This isn't some superfluous conceit, either. With one smart choice, the director has made Marie Antoinette a timeless picture of youth culture. Teenagers have been bored for centuries, and they will seek fun wherever they may find it. (There are other unforced parallels throughout Marie Antoinette that Coppola eases onto the table without comment. When Marie hears the tabloid reports of her supposed exploits, including the "Let them eat cake" misquote, it's hard not to think of our current gossip-obsessed culture. And does anyone doubt Sofia Coppola understands what it's like for a young girl to be pushed into the limelight before she is ready after the beatings she took for her part in Godfather III?)
Being a historical epic, of course things will take a turn for the worse by the end. History has already informed us of what happened to Marie Antoinette. Yet, Coppola uses the occasion as an opportunity to strip away everything we think about the figure and give her a chance to prove herself as a woman. She might not have been a good queen, but she does the right thing as a mother and a wife. Once forced from her home, she can stop and reflect back on what has happened to her. For as little as she may have wanted the life given to her, she made the best of it she could, right or wrong. And so, our final image of this beautiful Marie Antoinette is of a dreamy child, not a horrible tyrant. In some ways, it's an exoneration of the classically reviled character that is Marie Antoinette. Coppola reminds us that she was still human by capturing the affection this film has inspired in that last lingering shot of her regal face.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.