All ruffles and frills, Sofia Coppola’s undemanding pop biopic of Marie Antoinette sits up and begs to be labeled a chick flick — not a helpful trope when the chick in question is the nobly born Austrian transplant whose yen for retail therapy was greatly eclipsed by her talent for helping an already wounded French monarchy to its knees under the guillotine. Given the poison that oozes out of royal courts and pamphleteers the world over, I have no trouble buying Coppola’s revisionist portrait (based on a well-received book by Antonia Fraser) of Louis XVI’s child bride as a maligned and poorly advised woman who never said, “Let them eat cake.” But it’s harder to climb onboard for her view of Marie as a well-meaning shopaholic who wouldn’t hurt a fly, when historians are pretty much agreed that her indifference to the plight of her subjects, coupled with inept backroom politicking, did its share in speeding up the French Revolution.
Notwithstanding a few dutiful scenes of filth-encrusted peasants waving sticks outside the gates of Versailles and a brief pit stop to show Louis (rendered as an asexual buffoon by a blitzed Jason Schwartzman) throwing money at the American Revolution while neglecting the ferment under his nose, precious little history of any kind shows its face in Marie Antoinette. The omission is strategic: Coppola has nothing more on her mind than imagining what it felt like to be a young woman (Marie Antoinette was only 14 when her hyperambitious mother shooed her off) confronted with a hostile, hermetically sealed world for which she was totally unprepared. Which may be why the movie came in for some robust booing at Cannes this year. To be sure, Marie Antoinette has its champions among critics who defend Coppola’s right to read Marie Antoinette through her own pop sensibility. I’m all for that, but the spin still has to be worth spinning, and this project seems to me inspired less by artistic urges than by the solipsistic desire to fold one of history’s most fascinating figures into Coppola’s own history as a poor little rich child of movie aristocracy.
More reductive than mistaken, this agreeable confection retools a woman with a rather complex psyche into a lonely 18th-century mall rat and sorority girl overcompensating for her husband’s indifference to sex by plunging into shopping and nightlife. All costume and next to no drama, the movie is certainly fun to watch, with its endless, candy-cane layouts of shoes, frocks and sweetmeats and hip New Romantic ’80s score. (Not for nothing did The New York Times Magazine recently send Lynn Hirschberg trotting after Coppola as she shopped till she dropped in Paris’ high-end boutiques.) But you can only drool over so many Manolo Blahniks without beginning to wish for something more than an empty-calorie buzz. Given the vibe, Coppola might more profitably have cast Paris, Nicole or Lindsay as this insubstantial flibbertigibbet than Kirsten Dunst, a fine young minx who showed range and power in Coppola’s own The Virgin Suicides and, most impressively, as a foxy but troubled Marion Davies in Peter Bogdanovich’s unfairly neglected The Cat’s Meow.
As Marie, Dunst opens promisingly with a kittenish moue into the camera while getting her toes done, but immediately thereafter dissolves for good into a nebulously sweet young thing. One scene plods after another with lavish ceremony as she’s publicly dressed and undressed by gossipy ladies in waiting. We see her cooing patiently over her carnally petrified mate in bed, until, just when it seems as though seven years have passed in real time, Marie’s older brother (Danny Huston) is dispatched from Vienna by their implacable iceberg of a mother (amusingly played by an almost unrecognizable Marianne Faithfull) to administer the sex pep talk that will get Louis’ ball rolling and crank out the heir-and-a-spare every self-perpetuating monarchy requires. With unseemly suddenness, there now occurs what my high school history books used to call A Watershed in the Reign, causing Marie to come on all motherly, give up party-hopping and her Swedish lover and retreat to the Trianon in virginal white muslin, where, with decidedly mixed results, she gives full rein to her inner artist by taking up painting and theater.
Marie Antoinette has none of the high spirits that lent Lost in Translation its goofy charm. Coppola’s script is comic-book silly (“We’re too young to reign”), and she has studded the movie with miscast talent, from a listless Steve Coogan as the French ambassador to a hopelessly ill-at-ease Judy Davis as a compulsively curtseying Comtesse. Improbably, to the end the queen appears to be driven by nothing weightier than a schoolgirl’s anxiety to please, and when, at long last, she deigns to furrow her lovely brow over the plight of the peasants, it’s too little, too late to save either her neck or that of this bubble-headed movie.
MARIE ANTOINETTE | Directed by SOFIA COPPOLA | Written by COPPOLA, based on the book Marie Antoinette: The Journey by ANTONIA FRASER | Produced by ROSS KATZ and COPPOLA | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide