MOVIE REVIEW- Teen queen: A hairy look at <i>la reine</i>
Not as bad as its hostile reception at Cannes would suggest, Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation, has its screamingly horrible aspects but others that are excellent. It's as if it were made by two people, or one who's severely bipolar.
Coppola follows a teen queen from the big hair of the '60s to the hair bands of the '80s. Of course we're talking about the 1700s– so while the hair may be accurate, the music isn't. This may not bother viewers raised on "William Shakespeare's" Romeo + Juliet, A Knight's Tale, Great Expectations, and Moulin Rouge; but it creates some jarring moments without adding anything but soundtrack album and music video potential.
What's more harmful– if only because it's more pervasive– is the casting. As long as she keeps her mouth shut, Kirsten Dunst is perfect in the title role of the Austrian noblegirl who, in 1768 at the age of 14, is sent to France to marry Dauphin Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman) to cement Franco-Austrian relations.
Although it's a traumatic journey for a young girl, it's made easier by the fact that everyone in both countries speaks perfect English. (Note to self: check historical accuracy of this.)
As she crosses the border, she's made to leave everything of Austria behind– her friends, family, clothing, and her little dog too. "You can have as many French dogs as you like," she's told by the cold Countess de Noailles (Judy Davis), mistress of the royal household.
The teenage wedding goes well, but the wedding night doesn't. Louis' hobby is making keys, but he can't fit his key in Marie Antoinette's lock, if you catch my drift. A metaphor has to be pretty obvious for me to get it, and I got this one long before it's hammered home by Marie Antoinette's brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria (Danny Huston, whose wardrobe fitting must have lasted longer than the filming of his two brief scenes).
Louis-Auguste becomes King Louis XVI after the death of King Louis XV (Rip Torn, having a great time playing the randy ruler). Although he'd rather hunt all day and sleep all night, the young king overcomes his problem long enough to give his wife.. .a daughter. Wrong answer. It will take a male child to preserve their union and that of France and Austria.
When the male heir finally arrives, it's suggested that he's the result of the queen's affair with Sweden's Count Ferson (Jamie Dornan), shown as the only truly passionate interlude of her life.
"Let them eat cake" is dismissed as an invention of the tabloid-equivalents of the day, one of several rumors that feed the public's growing dissatisfaction with their rulers. The French Revolution is largely represented by off-screen crowd noises, but Coppola really shows off her filmmaking prowess in this brief final section. After being as indulgent as the French court, she shows how economical she can be.
The hanging of paintings indicates the birth and death of the royal couple's third child, and a haunting final shot speaks volumes. (Those who don't get it can go read volumes to find out what happened, or wait in vain for a sequel.)
Marie Antoinette is visually resplendent with the beauty of Versailles and the excessive luxuries to which the royal court treated itself. Dunst, almost endearing at times, is an excellent mannequin on which to hang the clothes and wigs of the queen, though how she fits into them after lying around eating pastries all day could be the subject of a very popular diet book.
Coppola wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum for her American stars, and Dunst and Schwartzman affirm the wisdom of this strategy with their every utterance. No one in the international cast is from the same country as their character (an unrecognizable Marianne Faithfull plays the Austrian Empress, and who the hell is Molly Shannon supposed to be?)– and there are maybe a dozen words of French in the entire movie.
After a shaky start in which it wavers between apparently unintentional parody and deadly seriousness, the film settles into a groove best described as gently satirical. If you can settle in with it, it works fairly well. The rock music isn't always disturbing, and much of the score sounds more or less of the period. But when Marie Antoinette faints after giving birth and the doctor says, "The Queen needs air," I thought he was referring to Coppola's favorite band, Air, who contribute one track.
Marie Antoinette could spawn a new genre of History for Dummies movies, which is scary when we have a dummy in the White House making history.