Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” has already gained notoriety for being booed when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival — though as its star, Kirsten Dunst, has pointed out, it was mostly the locals who booed it, and you can hardly blame them. If a French director made a film about George Washington and cast a Frenchman in the lead, American audiences probably wouldn’t be very happy with it either.
The film isn’t worthy of boos. What it is worthy of, I’m not entirely sure. Coppola has jammed it with contradictions and anachronisms, apparently wanting us to take it seriously while simultaneously not taking it seriously. Some parts are funny. Other parts are also funny, but unintentionally so. There are outstanding elements, such as the lavish costumes and production design, and ludicrous elements, like how every time the characters speak formally — “Your majesty! The peasants are staging a revolt; you must return at the castle at once!” — they sound like high school students doing a Shakespeare play.
Coppola wasn’t trying to make a historical epic, but the basics of history are adhered to: Marie Antoinette leaves her native Austria in 1768 to marry the king’s son (Jason Schwartzman); she and hubby Louis XVI become the king and queen, live sumptuous lives of empty frivolity, and are eventually deposed by the starving populace. But the details — well, none of the principals are doing French or even European accents; there’s Rip Torn as King Louis XV, with his very American growl, and Valley Girl Kirsten Dunst as Marie herself. In her spare time (which is pretty much all her time), Marie goes shopping and gets her hair done with her girlfriends, the way a modern woman her age would. The only difference is that because it’s 18th-century France, “shopping” means bringing in the royal tailor to show you his latest creations, and “getting your hair done” means having the royal wigmaker see how tall he can pile it up before it tips over.
The music is as contradictory as the rest of the picture, with period-appropriate Mozart mixed in with vintage punk rock and New Wave pop. It matches Marie herself: young and girlie (she was 14 when she married Louis) and modern for her time, yet also centuries removed from what the audience considers “modern” to be.
As she has done in her previous films “The Virgin Suicides” (which also starred Dunst) and “Lost in Translation,” Coppola focuses much of her attention here on her characters’ melancholy boredom. Marie is surprised at how much foolish protocol is involved in being the dauphin and later the queen; there is an elaborate ritual requiring a dozen attendants just to get her dressed in the morning. Royal life is vacuous and dull.
The film sometimes slips into doldrums, too — it’s hard to depict boredom without being boring — but that is not its chief problem. The trouble here is that while many of the characters are quaintly amusing, they are not full-bodied individuals. They don’t seem real (which is ironic, considering they WERE real), and so we don’t feel connected to them. Asked to care when things started to go south for Marie and Louis at the end of the film, I’m afraid I couldn’t manage it.
It’s almost irrelevant to talk about performances in a movie as queerly stylized as this one. Kirsten Dunst isn’t the least bit believable as the queen of France, but I don’t get the impression she was meant to be. One of Coppola’s themes is that these were just young kids, far too inexperienced to be monarchs and completely unsuited to the task. Likewise, Dunst and Jason Schwartzman don’t belong in the roles of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. I get the point, but so what? The film is better as a curiosity than as entertainment.
C+ (1 hr., 55 min.; )