October 23, 2006

MOVIES: Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

When we first see Marie (Kirsten Dunst), she's lounging on a chaise, scooping frosting off a nearby cake. She's just another teenage girl with nothing better to do. But then she's sent off to France, where she is to be married to the young Dauphin, Louis XVI, in order to solidify the alliance between France and Austria.

Coppola's not remotely interested in Marie Antoinette as a historical figure. This Marie is a bored young woman living in a foreign land, struggling with ludicrously elaborate rules of ettiquette and protocol, married to a man who has so little interest in her that even the need to father an heir is insufficient to convince Louis to consummate the marriage. She passes the time by gossipping with the ladies of the court (Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson are quite funny as two of these ladies), shopping for expensive wigs and gowns and shoes, dining on elaborate pastries, and flirting with a cute Swedish count.

It's a gorgeous movie to look at, and Kirsten Dunst is quite good as Marie; she's an entirely believable selfish ditz, and occasionally, we even get hints of a smarter, more politically aware woman underneath. There are fine actors in the supporting cast who manage to create interesting characters, despite Coppola's paper-thin script -- Rip Torn as Louis XV; Judy Davis and Steve Coogan as Marie's principal advisors; Danny Huston in a beautifully played cameo as Marie's brother, the Emperor of Austria.

For the first half-hour or so, it's rather entertaining watching Marie adapt to her new circumstances, but she's ultimately so tightly wrapped in her little cocoon -- partly by the limited roles allowed to women of her era, but mostly by her own self-absorption -- that the movie becomes a bore. Oh look, another lovely gown, another gorgeous set, another frustrating night in bed with Louis. The only tiny bit of drama we're given involves the pressure on Marie to produce an heir; once that finally happens, there's no more plot to speak of; the growing crisis in the French economy, and the revolt of the French people, is kept well in the background until the last few moments of the movie, when the royal family is forced to flee from the gathering mob. Dull and disappointing.

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