Friday, October 20, 2006

Marie Antoinette - Movie Review

Marie Antoinette 2006

“There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”
- Marie Antoinette

When Sofia Coppola burst upon the collective cinema consciousness, it was as the replacement for Winona Ryder in her father’s coda to the legendary “Godfather” saga. We all know how well that acting debut turned out. Who would have guessed that a decade and a half later, she would emerge as perhaps the most prominent female director working today? Certainly not us.

Her directorial debut, “The Virgin Suicides” surprised many with her combination of lilting visual style and steadfast emotional grounding. Her next film positively launched her into the stratosphere of auteur elites. “Lost in Translation” charmed the critics, beguiled the limited audiences that braved beyond the Cineplex fodder to encounter a modern day fairy tale of two strangers who dance around love in the urban wilds of Tokyo. It deservedly received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Bill Murray, Best Original Screenplay for Sofia which she would win and most importantly for students of Oscar history, a Best Director nomination which marked the first ever such accolade for an American female director. (Only Lina Wertmüller and Jane Campion had ever scored Best Director nominations prior. Nice. Three women in almost 80 years of Academy Awards.)

When Sofia announced that her follow up to her lauded work would be the life story of the legendary carb loving French queen, Marie Antoinette, many were surprised. Not us. Knowing full well, the depths of her fathers influence and guidance over the years, we knew this young lady was not only immersed in film history but completely aware of the potential power of histories’ narrative.

Basing her film biopic on the recent notable biography by Antonia Fraser, she cast Kirsten Dunst as the lead, her cousin Jason Schwartzman as King Louis XVI, some notable Oscar nominees Rip Torn and Judy Davis, scene stealing character actors, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson and the delicious Steve Coogan, another scion to a legendary Hollywood family, Danny Huston and a cult icon who managed to live through a scandal or two in her own life – the now grand Marianne Faithfull. (And by “grand”, we mean “lay off the candy bars, Marianne.”)

She wheedled her way into filming many of her scenes on the actual premises, the incredible Château de Versailles. She spared no expense in landing one of the best costume designers in the business, Milena Canonero to recreate the grandiose and over the top glory of the French Court at Versailles. All of the pieces seemed to be in place and then in a bizarre echo of her protagonists life, disaster struck. In France, at the Cannes Film Festival this year where the film made its debut. The film was denounced as a frail and lopsided a view of a pivotal time in French history. Which perhaps is true, if this were a dry history lesson. Blissfully for the viewer, it is so much more.

For us, the grand and glorious news about this latest cinematic take on Marie Antoinette is the success of the casting, the brilliant control and blossoming magic of Sofia Coppola’s direction, the superb production values and a completely unexpected emotional resonance. We were expecting an interesting take on the doomed French royalty from the stunning trailers blasting 80’s New Wave music. What we were not expecting was the most enjoyable film going experience this year.

Marie Antoinette is certainly no stranger to film. Actresses as diverse and talented as Billie Whitelaw, Jane Seymour, Joely Richardson, Anita Louise, Ute Lemper, and the great Nina Foch, Michèle Morgan and Norma Shearer have all had a stab at portraying the doomed Austrian Archduchess Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, who came to glory and her ultimate doom as Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France.

We recently had the opportunity to view Norma Shearer’s Oscar nominated performance in the MGM extravaganza of 1938, and were pleasantly surprised to rediscover one of the best performances from the famed First Lady of MGM. The emotional depths she achieves in her final scenes were Miss Shearer’s finest hour on film. And Robert Morley completely deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination for his delightfully obtuse King Louis XV. Classic movie lovers, go rent it now!

As for little Miss Dunst, we were a bit terrified she lacked the acting chops for this demanding role. While we are big fans of her early prepubescent work, her later work seemed to be fairly run of the mill starlet fodder. We could not have been more mistaken. She is breathtaking. Completely believable as the giddy fourteen year old, it is her transformation to the mature Queen whose embarrassment of riches refracts her adopted nations demise into anarchy that is the heart and soul of this wonderful movie. While the historians continue to argue the scope of Marie Antoinette’s spending habits, they agree that the opulent life at the Versailles court was worlds away from the quotidian Parisian. (“Quotidian Parisian”? Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?)

Lost amidst the glory and splendor of France, Marie Antoinette must learn the language, customs, rules, social hierarchy and her expected position in her new life. Saddled with a man-child as a husband and completely ill at ease among the devilishly deceptive ladies at court, she slowly learns to play the role of the proper Princess and ultimately the Queen of France. And while this could easily have become a plodding history lesson, Sofia Coppola is smart enough to trust the source material and turns this biopic into one filled with humor, intrigue, romance and yes, adventure.

Now much has been said about Ms. Coppola’s use of anachronisms, mainly in the thrumming chords of modern day music. We had absolutely no problem with this conceit. While we may not go so far as to equate the court of Louis XVI to modern day rock stars pampered existences, there is a delicious sense of playfulness that emerges from hearing Bow Wow Wow’s famed remake of “I Want Candy” blaring across the soundtrack during a terrific shopping spree montage. And certainly other famed biopics, such as “Chariots of Fire” made use of modern electronic music to great Oscar winning effect.

But the stunning visuals, priceless production values and ballsy soundtrack would mean nothing without the sterling performance of Kirsten Dunst and her fellow castmates. As Louis XVI, a restrained and hilarious Jason Schwartzman surprised us with his casual comic timing and heartfelt final moments as a monarch facing his greatest fear.

Steve Coogan, who was side splittingly joyous in the very fine “Tristram Shandy . . .” earlier this year is perfect as the devoted Ambassador to the young Queen. Carefully maneuvering his young charge through the minefield of social etiquette required, he manages to find the choicest moments to deliver the comic goods.

Two time Oscar nominee Judy Davis is brilliantly mannered as the Comtesse de Noailles who is saddled with training Marie Antoinette in the highly regimented life at court.

The dressing scene alone is worth the price of admission.

As the court gossips, Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson flitter and flail about and practically devour the scenery with their shenanigans.

The Oscar nominated Rip Torn is robustly lecherous as the aging Louis XV whose aging heart and crotch belong to the much vilified Madame du Barry played with the proper amount of spoiled bitchery by Asia Argento.

The famed exchange between the lowly du Barry and the grand Marie Antoinette is another perfectly staged moment in the film. As perfectly staged as it was in history. Which is a large part of the success of this film.

The life at court was a complicated and regimented detail of what, how and when that perhaps explains better than any political manifesto the utter ridiculousness of the disparity between the royalty and the people of France. Obviously the clock is ticking on the royal family, and when the moment arrives we curiously found ourselves on the edge of our seats!

It certainly wasn’t as if we were unaware of the final fate of the Capetian dynasty. But by imbuing her story with emotion, intelligence and most of all a very appreciated sense of humor at the grand opera unfolding before our eyes, Sofia Coppola earns the emotional resonance found in the final scenes of this glorious film. Vive la Sofia! Vive la Kirsten! Vive la France! Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette
Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI
Marianne Faithfull as Maria Teresa
Steve Coogan as Ambassador Mercy
Judy Davis as Comtesse de Noailles
Danny Huston as Emperor Joseph
Shirley Henderson as Aunt Sophie
Molly Shannon as Aunt Victoire
Rip Torn as Louis XV
Asia Argento as Madame du Barry
Jamie Dornan as Count Fersen
Aurore Clément as Duchesse de Char
Rose Byrne as Duchesse de Polignac
Mathieu Amalric as Man at le Bal Masque

Cinematography by Lance Acord
Film Editing by Sarah Flack
Costume Design by Milena Canonero
Production Design by K.K. Barrett
Art Direction by Anne Seibel
Set Decoration by Véronique Melery



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