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A Slice of Cake

I missed Marie Antoinette during its original theatrical run, and again during the brief dollar theater re-run, but I finally ran it to ground on DVD. This movie reminds me of certain pastries I have sampled: Very fancy and scrumptious-looking on the outside, but rather dry and tasteless when you bite in. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Sofia Coppola has a certain flair for making movies, and one could do much worse than this often captivating approach to a biopic.

There is an astounding level of detail in evidence here. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy with any degree of certainty, but it looks convincing enough. The sets, the costumes and the food are all sumptuously lavish. The soundtrack, as you probably know if you’ve seen a trailer, includes a unique blend of anachronistic pop music which works surprisingly well in the context of 18th-century France.

The movie follows the life of its title character (played by Kirsten Dunst) from when she is told that she will be shipped off to France to marry the future king to when she is driven away from Versailles in a carriage as a prisoner of the French revolution. During this time, about two decades go by, but I had to look that up because it certainly doesn’t show on Marie’s face. Perhaps that’s okay, as Dunst is at the median age between the character’s two extremes.

Marie Antoinette seems in many ways to be more of an experiment in style than anything else. Coppola succeeds rather well in making such a distant historical figure more accessible to modern sensibilities. Occasionally this is done in a consciously ahistorical fashion, as with the pop music or the brief appearance of a pair of blue sneakers amidst the piles and piles of Marie’s shoes. Most of the time, however, it is much more subtle, thanks in part to the skill of the actors. Dunst is well-cast in the lead role, but equally brilliant are Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Louis XVI, Steve Coogan (Tristram Shandy) as the Austrian ambassador sent to keep Marie out of trouble, and a host of others.

The perspective of the film is on Marie Antoinette as a tragic figure. She is powerless to control her own fate from the moment we first see her, pampering her pet dog (which accompanies her everywhere) and wandering aimlessly through lavishly-decorated rooms. Really, she has an awful lot in common with that dog. From the moment she arrives in France, people on all sides make it clear that her sole purpose and responsibility is (of course) to produce an heir. Nevermind that her new husband still thinks that girls are just annoying pests that don’t know how to do anything useful. That will make her task more difficult, but the lack of a pregnancy remains her problem. Later we realize that her husband, the Dauphin, may feel just as alone as she does.

Nobody talks national politics in Marie Antoinette. This is not in any way a history of events leading up to the French Revolution. The idea is that Marie, like the audience, has no point of contact at all with her people. She is living on another planet, and she doesn’t even know it. The closest we come to a discussion of national unrest is when Marie hears the story of her infamous “cake” gaffe. “I would never say that!” she protests, and we believe her.

There is no discernable narrative to Marie Antoinette, and if Coppola’s biopic is weak in fulfilling its purpose, it is because she takes so long to say so little. Even without a glancing familiarity with the actual queen, one can be fairly certain that there is little of genuine historical value here (although even the most inaccurate fiction can inspire viewers to conduct their own research). Nevertheless, this is a quality production and even when it drags there’s always something to look at.

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~ by Jared on May 7, 2007.

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