At the Cannes Film Festival, where fortunes can change more quickly than at the court of Versailles, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette arrived the odds-on favorite — buoyed by enthusiastic advance reviews in Paris, along with the sentimental possibility of history’s first father-daughter Palme d’Or winners — only to go home empty-handed. In between, there were those who wanted off with the head of Coppola and her rock-and-rococo biopic of France’s most notorious queen. While it’s impossible to know how many French nationals were among the small but vocal minority that booed Marie Antoinette’s first official press screening, it’s a fair bet that some Gallic viewers bristled at the film’s depiction of a time when Franco-American relations ran so strong that French troops and financial support were funneled into the American Revolution, even as France’s own economy teetered on the brink of collapse. But as Cannes wound on, there were critics of many nationalities who expressed disappointment with Coppola’s third feature film, bringing to mind one trusted colleague’s tried-and-true observation that sometimes people see a movie, but they don’t really see the movie.
In the case of Marie Antoinette, I suspect that many came to the film expecting one thing — perhaps the kind of dense, multicharacter historical epic Coppola père might have made — and didn’t know quite what to make of what they found instead. Don’t get me wrong: Marie Antoinette is a feast for the senses, shot on the grounds of Versailles, with hundreds of extras parading through the frame in candy-colored costumes by Oscar winner Milena Canonero. But the movie is less notable for its opulence than for its intimacy, as Coppola cuts through the rigid pomp and circumstance of so many period movies to create an irreverent snapshot of an impetuous young monarch (played with bubbly insouciance by Kirsten Dunst) more interested in haute couture and gossip among girlfriends than in the troubles of the nation that lies at her Manolo Blahnik–shod feet. Those who accused the film of failing as a study of 18th-century French politics missed Coppola’s point, for this Marie is a resolutely apolitical figure, not so much insensitive to the woes of pre-revolutionary France as ignorant to them, safely ensconced in a bubble of superficiality and decadence far from the madding crowd.
Daubed with anachronistic touches (including a soundtrack loaded with New Order, Bow Wow Wow and Gang of Four) that invigorate but never overwhelm, Marie Antoinette was, following the unqualified disaster of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, the one movie in this year’s Cannes competition that felt authentically hip and young and the product of a dazzling pop sensibility. It may also be Coppola’s most personal film to date, not because she is herself the scion of a royal Hollywood family, but rather because she came of age during her father’s lean years, when the palace of Zoetrope was set upon by angry creditors and King Francis was forced into working as a director-for-hire just to pay the bills. This is a movie made by someone who knows firsthand what it means to watch a once-glorious empire crumble.
There were few if any boos at the end of the press screening of Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, but that was because anyone likely to jeer (including the entirety of the three rows seated in front of me) had long ago fled the theater — many of them during the scene in which a methadone addict named Vanda pours forth a long, rambling monologue about childbirth, while a man called Ventura, who may or may not be Vanda’s father, listens inexpressively. Like all of the characters in Colossal Youth, Vanda and Ventura are “played” by real Cape Verdean immigrants enacting thinly fictionalized versions of their own lives, and to the extent that the film has a plot, it’s about how Ventura’s already tenuous existence descends into chaos when the demolition of the Lisbon housing project where he has lived for more than 30 years coincides with his wife’s decision to leave him. From there, Ventura sets out on an itinerant odyssey, dazedly wandering between his gutted-out former residence and a couple of prospective new ones, crossing paths with a succession of similarly displaced and/or dispossessed persons whom he refers to as his “children.”
Developed by Costa in close collaboration with his nonprofessional cast, many of whom contributed their own storylines and dialogue, Colossal Youth was whittled down by the director from more than 300 hours of footage shot over a 15-month period. The result is a harsh, nightmarish and often terribly beautiful film set against a world of peeling paint and crudely nailed planks, through which moves this solitary man grasping at the flickering embers of some real or imagined past. It is a movie in which marginal people living on the edges of society are treated with dignity and allowed to tell their own stories in their own unmistakable voices. And it is quite unlike anything that you or I have ever seen before.
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