Marie Antoinette: Intricate intimacies in a Versailles gone mad

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Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) and Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) share breakfast together.

Christopher Bengtsson

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Director Sofia Coppola has never taken the easy road to moviemaking and her latest film, “Marie Antoinette,” is no exception.

Based upon Antonia Fraser’s book about Marie Antoinette, the film centers upon the young Austrian princess who is sent off to Versailles to marry Louis XVI. The movie focuses upon the loneliness and alienation that Antoinette meets at the foreign court and her slow descent into decadence.

This is not a biopic in the traditional sense. Coppola’s aims lay more in finding the emotional state of Antoinette than trying to shoot a balanced historical film. Liberties are taken, and although Antoinette’s actions are not justified, they are at least given a reason. The original angle of the movie isn’t its only quirk though.

“Marie Antoinette” relies very little upon dialogue, and what there is consists mostly of offhand remarks and rumors.

The plot is loose and works more as a framework for the story. “Marie Antoinette” takes its time, and the pacing takes a bit of patience to get accustomed to.

The movie pans out as if one were watching the private home videos of the royal family combined with intimate key moments of Antoinette’s’ life. Think “Virgin Suicides,” but without Giovanni Ribisi’s voice-over narrative.

As with Coppola’s earlier installments, “Marie Antoinette” is a highly visual movie. It has been shot with flat lighting, giving a certain sheen to all the colors. It grants the movie a tone of realism, sidestepping the usual Hollywood polish in a refreshing manner. The wardrobe of the film is evocative; lush dresses and uniforms, adding to the sheer craftsmanship of “Marie Antoinette.”

The cinematography is beautiful. The landscapes and the onlocation shots at Versailles are feats in themselves. Since it is such a silent movie, the pictures together with the music help to deliver the proper emotional weight.

The controversial soundtrack that mixes contemporary pop with a high renaissance court drama is a bit overstated. It is not at all as bluntly executed as it may seem. Definitely not as juxtaposed as “A Knight’s Tale” and “Moulin Rouge.” With a deft choice of songs, Coppola uses the music as emotional springboards for the scenes. For example, the Cure’s “Plainsong” captures the grandeur of Louis XVI’s crowning ceremony much better than a string quartet would have.

The soundtrack also includes New Order, the Strokes, the Radio Dept., Bow Wow Wow and Kevin Shields.

Kirsten Dunst manages to deliver the demanding title role through clever mannerisms and a distinct body language, making up for the lack of dialogue in a creative way.

The parts that are there to make her character sympathetic to the viewer actually undermine her performance, detracting from the subtle approach that is the film’s strongest card. Instead of letting the audience make up their own minds of Antoinette, there is a pre-set bias, making the movie more black and white than it has to be. All in all, Dunst’s performance is what can be expected of an actor of her esteem, no more, no less.

Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal of Louis XVI could easily have ended up as a farce, but instead of tapping into his Max Fischer of “Rushmore,” he opts for a little more maturity. The Louis XVI of the movie is an eccentric kid who is out of his depth and has issues about sex, but that doesn’t mean that he is completely void of likeable traits.

It is always pleasing to see Steve Coogan on the silver screen, and “Marie Antoinette” is no exception. He plays the role of the Austrian ambassador Mercy, and is in many situations Antoinette’s only true confidant in Versailles.

One actor who does a lot with the limited screen time she gets is Rose Byrne as Duchesse de Polignac, Antoinette’s partner in crime in the fine art of decadence.

Rip Torn brings a playfully Americanized Louis XV to the table which is both refreshing and fun. Together with Coogan and Judy Davis, they bring a dignified air to the movie which the younger cast members wouldn’t have been able to pull off on their own.

The plot is delicate and deliberate. Because the plot is vague does not mean that “Marie Antoinette” doesn’t have one, or that it was thoughtless. On the contrary, the fact that the story arch is so loosely structured means that each plot-element must be so much more carefully crafted.

Viewed within context and considering the objective Coppola had to portray the emotional state of an alienated queen and not try and document her life in a non-subjective fashion, the film does exactly what it is supposed to do.

It lets you into Versailles and gives you a first hand look at an esoteric court and translates its set of conflicts into something modern and poignant, if one cares to listen.

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