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Friday, Jan. 19, 2007
The girl who would be queen
By KAORI SHOJI
A recurring scene in "Marie Antoinette" shows the young princess (or "Dauphine" as she was referred to in the Versailles Court) with her head leaning against the window of her carriage, looking out at the passing scenery, or craning her neck to look at the sky. She doesn't speak, and the soundtrack is muted to emphasize the creak of the wheels and the crunch of gravel under the horses' hooves. In a way, this was the life of Marie Antoinette; though she had almost unlimited resources at her disposal, she had no control or power over her own life. Destiny, politics, or some authority figure was always putting her in a carriage and taking her away to some unknown destination. The most she could do was to look out the window and let her thoughts wander.
"Marie Antoinette," based on Lady Antonia Fraser's brilliant biography, "Marie Antoinette: The Journey," is Sofia Coppola's third feature and her most ambitious yet. But underneath the trappings (and what elaborate, outrageously gorgeous trappings by Milena Canonero, to the tune of Manholo Blanik mules and the ceaseless rustle of taffeta and organza) the underlying message remains the same: Coppola has always strived to tell the world what it's like to be a girl -- someone's daughter, sister, object of desire, struggling to come into her own but at the same time fighting to keep her girl-status intact, to explain that brief, irritable and fascinating time in a woman's life known as girlhood. Five teenage sisters die to preserve it in "Virgin Suicides." A girl-wife uses it to instigate a platonic love affair with an older man in "Lost in Translation." And now, in "Marie Antoinette," GIRL is deployed as the defining factor of the persona of one of the world's most famous queens.
Through Marie, Coppola explores what it is to be a girl, not just any girl, but a privileged, sheltered and celebrated one. The movie is not only a tribute to the queen, but also a sorority call to poor little rich girls everywhere: "Look, here we are!" (Albeit in a girlish whisper, not a feminist battle cry.).
Coppola identifies with Marie A., just as she identifies with the actress Kirsten Dunst, who plays her; the two have been famed Hollywood icons since childhood and spent their teens in a very particular environment not unlike that of the Court of Versailles. And it can't be a coincidence that she cast Asia Argento (like Sofia, she's an actress/filmmaker, and she's also the daughter of Italian horror-meister Dario Argento) as Madame DuBarry, drawing her as a love-hungry, attention-craving femme fatale who held sway over the aging, indulgent Louis XIV.
One aspect that Coppola emphasizes is the utter lack of privacy. From the moment she opened her eyes in the morning, Marie Antoinette was never alone. Her hygiene rituals had to be performed before a bevy of court ladies all vying for the right to wash and powder her and draw on her rouge. She ate at a vast table in front of an audience of what seemed like hundreds of people. Her nuptial bed was surrounded by beady-eyed well-wishers who all exhorted her to get pregnant, preferably that same night. "This is ridiculous," she would venture to say to her court tutor, Comtesse de Noailles (brilliantly portrayed by Judy Davis). And Comtesse would shoot right back: "This is Versailles!" She may as well have said "This is Hollywood!"
"Marie Antoinette" has been accused of being all frivolity with little historical substance, but that was precisely what Versailles and the queen were about. She lived her 38 years as a fashion addict, a slave to her vices (gambling, shopping and an affair with a handsome Swedish count), and a shallow romantic who always chose intransient amusements over less pleasurable things, like curbing expenditure so that her subjects wouldn't starve. Coppola structures the story as one long stream-of-consciousness, and the frames only contain what Marie saw, felt, and how she perceived the world. Consequently, the visuals are festooned with lace, ribbons and chiffon. Delicious macaroon-pastels dominate the color scheme, and the lighting is golden buttery to offset the white skin and towering, elaborate hair-dos.
The setting is limited to the confines of Versailles or Le Petit Trianon, which her husband had presented to her as a country retreat. Her days were spent in the company of like-minded girls (the Duchess du Polignac and the Princess Lamballe) who formed a little clique reminiscent of "Beverly Hills High," and her nights were devoted to persuading her shy, geeky husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), to sleep with her. After finally bearing a daughter and then a son, it seemed she was settling down ("I don't need any more diamonds!"), but her resolutions -- if she had been serious about them -- weren't enough; peasant uprisings began all over France, which ultimately led to the storming of Bastille.
Marie kept depression at bay by letting the champagne flow, while flowers and sweets crowded her rococo tables and dresses crammed her closets. "Marie Antoinette" is in no way a historical film -- it's a wispy but nonetheless brilliant cutout of a girl who just wanted to have fun. But at the end of the day and in the relative privacy of her bathtub, she would give way to a unnamed sadness -- Dunst's expression in these scenes speaks for the girl in everyone: We've had our fun, now what?