'Antoinette' shows life inside gilded cage

by Leslie Adkins | 11/9/06 6:00am

By Leslie Adkins

The Dartmouth Staff

Few royals were as infamously apathetic about the welfare of their countries as Marie Antoinette. And in the latest film adaptation of the infamous queen's life, director Sofia Coppola is similarly distant from her subjects, not only ignoring France beyond the Baroque windows of Versailles, but also neglecting the development of those inside its walls.

Based on Lady Antonia Fraser's "Marie Antoinette: The Journey," Coppola's "Marie Antionette" portrays the young queen (Kirsten Dunst) as an unwitting pawn in the elaborate game of French ceremony. Miserable amid the rigid pomp and circumstance of the French court, Marie Antoinette takes refuge in the sensual pleasures of youth from her arrival in France until her expulsion from Versailles.

While in traditional films about famous royal figures like "Elizabeth," "The Lion in Winter" and "Henry VII," the drama of the court transcends time and place to relate to personal struggles, Coppola's film allows its audience only to observe Antoinette's life from afar, remaining unable to either relate or sympathize.

"This is ridiculous!" Marie Antoinette sighs, as she has to wait for a third royal to dress her in the official morning ceremony. The young royal's response to the inimitable extravagance of the Palace of Versailles is intended to humanize her -- she, too, sees the absurdity in what goes on behind those gilt-and-mirrored walls. The Archduchess of Austria given to the Dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman) at the tender age of 15 in order to seal an international treaty, Marie Antoinette is a stranger in a strange land.

As the queen indulges in cake after sumptuous cake, it becomes harder to maintain any sense of compassion for the carefree royal. The film emphasizes Marie Antoinette's exploitation, at the hands of her husband, her court and her adopted country. But what the film also makes increasingly clear is Antoinette's staunch refusal to change the world in which she lives. Her lack of action becomes infuriating, and implying that she deserves sympathy is simply insulting to the audience.

Dunst, back for her second collaboration with Coppola, has the fresh-faced look and quiet demeanor appropriate to a youthful royal beauty. She giggles and gossips with the crowd of sycophants that perpetually surrounds her, she tears up at appropriate moments, but she never seizes the aristocratic grace of a queen as her own virtue. Filling the shoes of such a monumental historical figure is a daunting task, but Dunst unfortunately reverts to her own personality -- teen queen rather than queen of France.

The collected, elaborate appearance of the queen cannot completely hide her distress over her inability to consummate her marriage with her cold husband. While Marie Antoinette "evolves" her Versailles fashion sense -- her wigs and heels towering higher and higher -- her maturity concurrently stagnates. Similarly, the film's production aesthetic is far more impressive than the empty plot that it supports.

The film is modernized by breezy post-punk songs that play over scenes of the queen frolicking in fields and enjoying the company of friends and paramours. While the soundtracks of Coppola's previous films, "Lost in Translation" and "The Virgin Suicides," are used as tools in plot exposition and almost as additional dialogue, in "Marie Antoinette" there is very little substance behind the songs.

Instead, New Order, the Strokes and Bow Wow Wow keep up appearances: their "clever" juxtaposition with the historicism of the story, does little except to signal that this is a Sofia Coppola film. There is no sense of the music as instrumental to the vision of the movie. Coppola seems to have attempted to evoke the carefree ease of her two previous films, but failed miserably.

"Marie Antoinette" is visually exciting, but more stunning than the decor is the attempt to garner sympathy for the "poor, misunderstood royal". If Antoinette's personal feelings were explored with more depth, instead of just relegating her to a frivolous pretty face, the movie also would have far more substance beneath its surface. Empty stories with empty purposes are never entertaining. Antoinette's pretty face, after all, couldn't save her from the guillotine.