In the build up to this year's New York Film Festival, I had been participating in the annual ritual of scanning the global festival circuit to see what films on the American horizon were generating interest, but I was still surprised when Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was included in the line-up. It seems obvious now; A strong, talented American filmmaker making a film in France (a costume drama no less) about a well-known historical icon. You can almost smell the Upper West Side just reading that. But in the wake of Cannes, where Marie Antoinette was one of the most critically derided films to come out of the festival, I tried to remain hopeful. Prior to seeing the film, and not one to shy away from greedily devouring on-line film reviews, I had a lot to think about. Let's look back, shall we?
"Coppola avoids writing, or filming, involved dialogue scenes, as if aware she can't pull off anything too complicated. Despite the vast number of people onscreen in many sequences, scarcely any scenes feature sustained group dynamics, multiple moves, ambitious staging or numerous characters interrelating verbally. To get around this, she tends to attractively and straightforwardly film individuals or simple groupings and then lay in the desired content via voiceover snippets of letters, isolated conversational snippets or, better yet, songs that can simply be played over a brief montage of shots. It's an easy-listening style of filmmaking, where the basic visual notes are hit but complexities, nuances and deeper meanings remain ignored... Coppola avoids famous incidents that would normally make up the essence of drama: the affair of the necklace that so seriously stained her reputation, the chance discovery of the royal family as it fled; the king and queen's imprisonment and eventual execution. High schoolers won't be able to use info they learn here to pass any history tests." -- Todd McCarthy, VARIETY, May 24, 2006
"Unfortunately (the) first 10 seconds was followed by another and another and another, and after two hours of those little series of seconds, it felt as if the staccato energy and sporadic sensual delights of Marie Antoinette had dissipated. Then the final credits arrived. And then the booing started. Yes, really. No other film in competition at Cannes this year has been booed...Coppola lacks the committed, demented genius Baz Luhrmann brought to Moulin Rouge, and when Marie Antoinette isn't being crazy and decadent it becomes a bit too pretty, proper and trivial for my taste."-- Andrew O'Hehir, SALON, May 24, 2006
Etc etc. Leaving the press screening of Coppola's film last week at the NYFF, I heard even more personal complaints about the film; "Of course Coppola identifies with Marie Antoinette," the voices said. "The isolated rich girl living in the palace, bored stiff, with great shoes." Maybe Coppola has her own critical masses to confront, pitchforks at the ready, the guillotine a mere carriage ride away.
I don't know if there ever was a time when America didn't feel compelled to stand at the intersection of celebrity, gossip, envy and art in our culture, but what I do know is how weary I am of the way in which people's real lives become fodder for the interpretation of their work, and no recent example is as striking as the completely unjustified smear campaign being waged against Sofia Coppola and her wonderful Marie Antoinette. Yes, Sofia Coppola is the daughter of a famous film director, and yes, we've all seen the New York Times magazine piece following her around the streets of Paris. A good life. In the case of Marie Antoinette, let's play grown-up and put the bullshit aside: Coppola has created one of the most compellingly watchable historical dramas in recent cinema precisely by doing what her critics accuse her of doing; playing loose with the historical and temporal facts for the sake of making a good movie. Answer me this; Would it be more or less ‘historically accurate’ (don’t get me started) to ascribe thoughts and famous quotes to a character via period dialogue or carefully plotted revelations that in no way spring from the emotional experience of real life? Or rather, isn’t it more cinematically compelling to interpret an historical life as an extension of the modern condition? Because, while there is no mistaking that Marie Antionette is certainly about class, privilege and duty, at its very core it is the story of a girl gone, well, a little wild.
Eats Cake, Wants Candy: Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette
Coppola makes three choices that, I think, deliver a knock-out punch to critics who, having been shown the shiny surface of a privileged life, choose to allow themselves to be blinded by the sparkle. The first is her use of modern new wave/post-punk music as the soundtrack for the emotional inner-life of Marie who, as played by a wondrous Kirsten Dunst, does what is required to keep up appearances, but who burns inside with a lust and curiosity for life. That she is a queen and not a member of the Parisian underclass certainly allows her to follow that curiosity in highly privileged ways that most of us could only dream of, but hasn't that nearly always been the case? Does every story of the French Revolution have to be Les Misérables? (Please, god, no.) Regardless, while Marie is living the high life with composure and in concert with her sense of royal duty, it is the music that lets us know how she really feels. From the film's opening notes (Gang Of Four's Natural's Not In It) to a terrific montage set to Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy (re-mixed by My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields) to the beautiful use of Joy Division's Ceremony, Coppola understands that the feelings and longings of the young queen are ahistorical and in tune with the sounds of the director’s own youth. This is a terrific way into the character as well as the artist behind the camera, a common ground that shapes the character of Marie in a poetic and utterly cinematic way.
Next, Coppola does not make the mistake of trying to stuff historical drama into what is essentially the story of the awakening of a young woman and I can't tell you how thankful I am for that. When one of my colleagues lodged the "rich girl telling the story of a rich girl" complaint against the film, I immediately realized that Coppola, by tackling this subject, couldn't win with those whose minds were predisposed to personal interpretations; Had she made the film about the French peasantry, I can only imagine the criticisms. Instead of dabbling in the post-graduate free-for-all of political interpretation, Coppola does what a good storyteller should do; She stays true to her subject as an artist by filtering the story through her own sensibility. That means we hear The Cure, see a pair of blue Converse Chuck Taylor's in Marie's shoe closet, that historical details are the fodder for cinematic play; the movie is a thousand times richer for being smart enough to entertain and to tell Marie's personal story from her own, interior point of view while simultaneously building bridges across history, access points to an otherwise unrelateable story. I found myself sympathizing deeply with the girl, despite her tremendous excesses, because her story is universal, glitz and glam and all.
Finally, Coppola's aesthetic and visual style in the film is consistent with her previous work with the cinematographer Lance Acord; the images are beautiful and perfectly suit the film's narrative. The hurtful, hushed words of courtly intrigue that fly around the palace take on a sense of tremendous importance when set against the visual backdrop of Versailles itself. I found it easy to see how someone, given anything they wanted in life yet isolated from much of the world's experience, could allow life at the court to become so all encompassing. It would have been more shocking and less true to see that world expanded because, by and large, it probably wasn't and, even if it were, it doesn't serve the dramatic purpose of the film to escape from Versailles and courtly life. Instead, by nailing the visual delight found in Marie's world and taking it seriously, Coppola validates her character's dramatic story and makes us all privy to the fantasy and, most importantly, moved when the party comes to its inevitable end. Which is, of course, the point.
I think, had any other director made Marie Antoinette and followed Coppola's non-literal, highly cinematic strategy of telling this story this way, they would be hailed for their achievement. I simply think, in the age of Paris Hilton, MTV's Cribs and blinged-out hip-hop stars, there is a general weariness with the celebration of ridiculous, undeserved (read young) opulence among cultural critics. That said, the way in which Coppola's film (and the director herself) has been mistreated by these woeful misreadings is simply unfair; the film is neither a celebration of the queen nor a smug cautionary tale. I remember when Eric Rohmer made The Lady and The Duke a few years back, and despite the muted voices of a few left-wing French intellectuals, most critics were delighted by the visual daring and the fun Rohmer seemed to be having with what ended up being a deeply conservative story about a royalist on the run from stupid yet dangerous French revolutionaries. But this isn't The Lady and The Duke because there is no ideological longing here, and certainly no statement about French political morality is being made. Instead, Coppola does what any director in her right mind must do to make a very good movie; She empathizes deeply with her protagonist, finds a way to bring her audience into the queen's gilded cage and allows us to look into her unknowable heart.