It’s tempting to look at writer/director Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Marie Antoinette as a coded self-portrait – young woman born into immense privilege, continuing in the family business, expected to have an understanding of the hoi polloi though with no experience thereof, allowed to indulge her whims, and so on.
Perhaps it’s a better film seen that way, because as a straightforward biopic it’s full of problems, chief of those being the inertia at the centre, where Kirsten Dunst’s Marie – the Austrian princess bought in by the French to produce an heir – and her spouse the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) sit like a pair of bland puddings while around them wheel a menagerie of exotic creatures. Rip Torn’s baritone adds fruitcake richness to his portrayal of King Louis XV, old but still full of priapic desire for his mistress, Mme Du Barry, played by Asia Argento with a look on her face like she’s got a boiler-room of naughtiness going on between her legs. There’s also Danny Huston, as Marie’s worldly wily older brother, drafted in to help the Dauphin work out what to do in the bedroom – the Dauphin might be gay, terminally inbred or just bored, who knows? And around them a court of looks and whispers. These exotics and intriguers apart, it’s a languid portrait of inert, disconnected people that at every turn threatens to become inert and disconnected itself. Coppola knows this, hence the ripeness of the supporting characters, hence the use of modern pop music (Aphex Twin, New Order, The Cure) on the soundtrack, the largely 1980s choices being another hint that this is really more about Ms C, who became a teenager in the middle of that decade.
It drifts along, the Dauphin doing a bit of hunting, Marie getting back to nature in the model farm she set up at the Trianon palace – where she indulges in the sort of mock bucolic playing about with cows and sheep that well-to-do young women now ape with their organic foods and working holidays on farms. And then, waking up as if from a “what the hell was I doing?” reverie, Coppola gets a spurt on with a finale that packs in the “the peasants are revolting”, “let them eat cake”, “off with their heads” headlines in one urgent rush.
Coppola isn’t delivering a history lesson. And the way that she covers the well known events, merely acknowledging their existence, makes that abundantly clear. The clothes are splendid, the locations genuine (some of it was even shot at Versailles), the acting superb, and it’s a fabulously rich summoning of an atmosphere of suffocating protocol. Dramatic, though? Hardly.
© Steve Morrissey 2006