Gossip and Booze
Sofia Coppola's Bobblehead Court
You don't need to have the cynical heart of a film critic to consider Sofia Coppola the most fortunate world-renowned filmmaker, and all-around tastemaking celeb, to ever ride into town on Bill Murray's back. No doubt, Lost in Translation exhibited a sweet ellipticality, if also a touristy laziness, but its coolness factor would have dipped like tech stock with some other fiftysomething actor making shy, sly time with Scarlett Johansson. (Coppola's first film, the adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, was so dreamy and dawdling it seemed like sketches for a film yet to be made.) A famously globetrotting haute-couture aficionado, Coppola is never unfashionable, but like a true impresario, she intends—particularly now, with Marie Antoinette—to create a style zeitgeist, not merely follow one. Her sensibility amounts to a proud fetishization of surface and a blithe dismissal of depth. If Murray hadn't brought his sad/ironic alligator-skin baggage with him to Tokyo, Lost in Translation would've been as placid and implacable as an iced-over lake.
Marie Antoinette is Coppola's cash-in, her reward for low-budget ka-chings and the crafty seduction of so many underserved grown-up filmgoers. It is, in a word, a waxworks. The movie can be strikingly gorgeous at times, an exploding plastic inevitable somewhere between Peter Greenaway's tableaux-nuts The Draughtsman's Contract and every other 18th-century costume epic ever made. (Or a kid-sister film to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, without any of that contested classic's ironic wit and only a minor fraction of its light-show splendor.) But waxworks, being lifeless, are quickly perused spectacles; Coppola's film is over two hours and is almost perversely undramatic and repetitious. The history covered is straight up: Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria (Kirsten Dunst), at 14, is shipped to France in order to wed a 15-year-old Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). She has trouble getting pregnant, plunges into marital doldrums, then embraces self-indulgence (at the state's expense) and is eventually executed during the Revolution.
At first, Coppola's program is right-eous, if predictably subject to diminishing returns: ultrarealistically revealing the life of ancient royalty in all its ornate and stultifying ritual. Having an army of family members and hand servants hovering in the royal boudoir as you retire to bed and as you wake is an omigosh set piece Coppola returns to seemingly a dozen times in the first hour, with Dunst's schoolgirlish astonishment fading to acceptance. The structured politesse of meals, the pecking order of who may speak to whom first in public, the diplomatic danger of perceived slights among aristocratic players—these are old Old World–critique points pounded relentlessly, and if they were witty the film would be satire. But Coppola's strategy is droll to the point of numbness—live-wire performers like Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, and Molly Shannon are left to inhabit their little scenes at half-speed, and in tiny antidramatic vacuums. Could court life possibly have been this juiceless? Asia Argento, as famed uber-whore Madame du Barry, is no more than a sneer and a beauty mark. The landscape of Versailles is magnificently, revoltingly itself, and the musical interludes suck up most of the running time, as if dialogue and character in themselves were too troublesome.
What Coppola may be after, in fact, is a simulacrum of her own privileged, jet-setting adolescence—the high points of poor-little-rich-girl Marie's life are swamped with giggly fashion shopping, pigging out on bonbons, gossiping, dallying with a dashing count, and boozing with her girlfriends, most of which are scored to '80s new wave bop like Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy." Girls just want to have fun: Only late in the party do the costs of the queen's famous indulgences—including rioting mobs—figure in either the film's disaffected sphere or its heroine's consciousness. Visually, Dunst is a veritable creamsicle, but her role is so featureless it comes to resemble the actress hanging out backstage, dressed and prepped with nowhere to go. Inadvertently, Coppola has painted a pathetic portrait of a spoiled kitten not unlike herself, born into unlimited resources and without a thought in her pretty head, before she lost it entirely.