When people find out that I review movies, they invariably want to pick my brain about what I've seen. It doesn't matter if they've never met me before, whether they know anything about my tastes and opinions or not, I suddenly am the guy holding all the cards and they want to take a peek. Sometimes they are hoping to get the inside scoop on what might be coming to the multiplex, and sometimes they want to square off like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef and see if my take on something measures up to theirs.
I would say that last year, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was the movie that most often took over these kinds of conversations. People were genuinely perplexed. The scuttlebutt from Cannes--which, if there is ever a historical chronicle made of this film, will be the real-life analogue to the gossip and murmurs of the cinematic Queen's royal court--somehow infected the public mindscape to such a degree, no one really knew what to think about the beleaguered effort. The audience wanted to see it, they just weren't sure if they should. If the person I was talking to had seen it, and God forbid they had not liked it, they were always quick to demand that I defend my position.
Because I loved it. No other movie captured me as completely last year. From the pre-release marketing campaign through the closing credits, I was Sofia Coppola's man. Perhaps it's our proximity in age, and the personal experience she funnels into her pictures reflects those of us who grew up in the 1980s (I'm thinking the 25 to 35 range, here), but Sofia Coppola speaks to me, and it doesn't matter if she's working with a bored Michigan suburb, an isolated Tokyo hotel room, or a palace in Versailles, whether the fabric is large or small, she manages to say something intensely personal in her movies.
In the case of Marie Antoinette, the writer/director is using a teenaged queen from 18th-century France to say something about the eternal cycle of youth culture and the clash of expectations we have for ourselves and those that are put on us by society at large. Kirsten Dunst, who probably knows a thing or two about the subject from becoming one of Hollywood's hottest young actresses at the age of 12, plays the title role, and she's a marvelous choice. If we stick to the comparisons between Marie Antoinette's royal career and Dunst's evolution as an actress, the growth pattern is remarkably similar--from young and naïve to celebrated and adored, then onward to maturation even as tabloids and detractors attempted to hold her down. In the film, Marie turns into a well-mannered mother and wife, something history rarely gives her credit for; similarly, I don't think Kirsten Dunst gets enough praise for the fine actress she has become. She makes all the right choices in Marie Antoinette, proving that the best choice of all was Coppola's when she cast the role.
Which, it's no surprise that Coppola would make such an excellent choice. Her casting is always impeccable. All of her choices are. I don't think you can find another director who is as self-assured in her personal vision. Sofia knows what every shot requires, understands every moment of her script and how to achieve it. Having acquired the soundtrack since I first saw (and reviewed) the movie, I was much more intimately aware of all the pieces of music used in the film, be they the more standard classical selections or the anachronistic new wave that got people talking as soon as New Order showed up in the earliest trailers. Pay attention to what songs Coppola places where. From the mood of the instrumentation to even particular lyrical passages, she has an astounding sense for how music can bring a scene to life, applying a subtle touch when needed (the Windsor for the Derby song when Marie arrives in France) or more bold (the malaise of the Strokes as she laments the absence of a lover). Even tiny visual details are important to Coppola, hence the much talked-about glimpse of a pair of Converse in the shoe montage. They only appear for the briefest of moments, but they achieve their purpose. In that instant, Coppola reminds us of her intention with the movie: to show us that Marie Antoinette was just a girl like any other. She merely found herself in an extraordinary situation that wasn't hers by design.
There is so much on offer in Marie Antoinette, I could go on and on. All of the actors--Jason Schwartzman, Steve Coogan, Judy Davis, etc.--are remarkable, and the visual pleasures to be seen in the marvelous sets (many of the real historical locations were used) and costumes are enough to recommend the movie on their own. That Sofia Coppola takes her audience further, however, that she carves out an individual path rather than follow the standard tropes of historical epics, is what makes Marie Antoinette a modern classic. The Motion Picture Academy may have blundered when they failed to nominate this movie for anything more than a nod to its splendid costumes, but I don't believe history will make the same mistake. In the far-flung future when film students look back at the cinema of the early 21st century, I have no doubt Sofia Coppola will be listed among the most important auteurs, and Marie Antoinette will be a big reason why.
With a movie full of such gorgeous colors as Marie Antoinette, viewers are going to want an equally gorgeous film transfer, and this DVD mostly delivers. Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic ratio and mastered in high definition, the disc has excellent depth of field and manages to capture the wide range of palettes, from the pale and depressing blues of the early scenes to the pinks of the wildest parties and on to the black of mourning and the golden sunshine at Petit Trainon. I had some minor complaints in the first half hour when I thought I saw some edge enhancement, but I tried to keep my eye on it as the film progressed, and the issue seemed to go away.
There are both English and French language tracks mixed in 5.1 (subtitles in both languages, as well). The audio mix is astounding, working with both the front and back speakers to create a real sense of place. Scenes in the royal court, where whispers and backbiting is de rigueur, the sound editor moves the various bits of gossip around so that they seem to be coming from no particular person, but instead hanging in the air, lurking. Elsewhere, at the coronation or the masquerade ball, the music is explosive and exciting. It's an absolutely top-notch job.
The twenty-six minute "Making of" leads off the pack of bonus features on Marie Antoinette. Full of candid on-set footage and interviews, it peels back the layers on some of Sofia Coppola's influences while also getting the perspective of Lady Antonia Fraser, author of Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the book upon which the script was based. A good amount of attention is paid to the art direction and design of the film, and out of the actors, I'm most convinced I'd want to go out and have a drink or two with Danny Huston. He seems like a cool cat. As with any Coppola production, it's a family affair. Father Francis and brother Roman make appearances, and this featurette was put together by mother Eleanore.
Two very short deleted scenes are given with explanations from Coppola for why she removed them. There is also the original teaser and full-length theatrical trailers. Elsewhere on the disc is a menu for trailers for five other movies and a spot on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack.
Finally, the four-minute "Cribs with Louis XVI" is a funny parody of the MTV show where music stars show off their houses. Decked out in costume, Schwartzman takes us on a tour of the palace. He's clearly seen too many episodes of the real thing!
I was extremely excited to receive Marie Antoinette on DVD for review and to watch it again, and the movie did not disappoint. Sofia Coppola's personal journey through the life of one of history's most complex characters only rewards closer scrutiny. Kirsten Dunst is marvelous as the teenaged monarch, and the sumptuous colors of the art direction and costume designs are not dulled a whit on this DVD release. Give this one your time. It's a sublime cinematic effort. Highly Recommended.
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 projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.