Biographical pieces generally follow a similar formula: a big name star set into a love story of some sort, usually built up to be flawed but always wholly likable and generally includes nothing that would alienate the Academy voters. Yet in crafting ‘Marie Antoinette’, Sofia Coppola removed all of this, leaving literally the shelf with which she could work with, transforming it into something entirely other, a 80’s music video throwback to be exact.
Dealing with Antoinette’s (Kirsten Dunst) early life and arranged marriage to the Crowned Prince Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), we see the decline that led to her eventual death and the foundation of the French Republic, specifically after the death of King Louis XV (Rip Torn).
Coppola will undoubtedly never be known for her bold choices and such decisions suggest a softness of hand that could often be more substantial, even in the direction taken. In the hopes of humanizing the historical figures involved, almost all political and wider social context has been removed, leaving high society and all it’s trapping to fill the void, one that can never be so. This is an alarming development in that there is little seriousness even leant to this preoccuption, resulting a fantastically realized but superficial endeavour. Nothing is pinned down, appearing all together fantastical without any grounding in reality to make this more than a mere examination of hyperbole.
Costume design is exquisite, carrying a certain modernity in the minor flares present, without belittling their authenticity. A conscious decision seems to have been made to favour velvet, pastels and other soft colours, that despite their depth at times, are still ethereal.
However as the movie becomes more about these additions rather than even a more accurate portrayal, the few links it has left to authenticity gradually erode, leaving just that.
An even more confusing elements is that of accents. Whilst it is often deemed appropriate to have a cast speak in English dialects, here there is no such general rule, each choosing that which they wish to adopt. So much so that from scene to scene they way in which a character expresses themselves can vary quite significantly. It is cosmopolitan in a modern sense, but considering these characters are still historically of particular origins, it inadvertadly takes attention away from the characters and diverts it to the actors themselves. I have always believed that the character should be as distinguished as possible from the person within the role but here it is just not entirely possible.
The most significant issues however are questions that arise out of such wanton consumption (something I eagerly wait to judge in the new S&TC sequel) and Coppola is too afraid to answer, for feel of hampering Antoinette’s lightness of being (so concerned in fact with avoiding any seriousness, the movie itself orbits Antoinette rather than following her, never getting too close, not even in the closing moments when everything around her comes crashing down). If this modern hand is meant to insinuate such behaviour is admirable, it says little of how women have progressed, especially regarding a woman’s worth, along with leaving no direct cause and effect between excess and what led to the titular character’s downfall. Or even on a simpler level of storytelling, how are is her behaviour admirable or capable of empathising with when it becomes progressively more difficult when she develops a more contrary and decadent attitude.
None of these basic questions are answered, leading to the entire production being somewhat vapid. There is a saving grace in the style of the movie, but at a running time of over two hours and a difficult protagonist, ultimately how are we to be amused by a woman who only seeks to be amused herself?