Sex. Drugs. Rock n'Roll. Blah, Blah, Blah...Although in comparison to our day, the height of French Decadence hardly seems "Rock n'Roll", every generation has its punk stars and rockers; extremists that stand out with hedonistic and anarchist ways. Oh yes, boys and girls, there was punk before there was Punk.
Pink hair, crazy parties, promiscuous, casual sex, drinking, gambling, and a complete disdain for authority. Sounds like a description of any given music star from the late seventies on. I am, however, actually referring to Marie Antoinette...or, since some historians now contest the reputation that history has solidified for her...at least the rumors of Marie Antoinette.
While most would answer "FRENCH!" if asked Ms. 'Toinette's nationality, she was actually born of Austrian blood and married into French court at the age of fourteen. Yes, one...four.....fourteen. Her groom was then sixteen year old Dauphin Louis Auguste (Later to be King Louis XVI) who would fail to consummate their marriage for SEVEN years. What does a teenage girl whose husband is sexually repressed but abundantly wealthy do? She shops. She gambles. She has parties and she flirts. She indulges herself in whatever she can while balancing a disdain for the gossipy French court (not exclusively a French behavior folks...) and maintaining public popularity for herself and, as a result, Austria as a whole. And although she bucks tradition and social expectation, for a good many years this punk-rock girl still manages to stay favorably in the public eye.
Then she gambles away the treasury's money, engages in inappropriate (and strictly Austrian) behavior which shames the King, and turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to all those French peasants that she was previously renowned for so benevolently aiding. Marie slips French money to her Austrian brother Emperor Joseph, adulterates herself with Swedish Count Ferson, and conceived at least two of her children with him, had sexual affairs with both men and women, poisoned her own son whom she also sexually molested....or so the French rumor-mills claimed. It is debatable now how much of her reputation was unfavorable gossip (or outright lie and slander) and how much was truth, but truth did culminate in the storming of the palace at Versailles, the King and Queen and their children being taken to prison. Louis was executed, Marie's health failed due to self-imposed starvation, tuberculosis and possibly cancer until she was then also executed at the Guillotines on October 16, 1793.
This summary only scratches the surface of a wildly complex woman with a rather scandalous life. Wikipedia manages to delve even deeper. So why then, does a film that uses modern rock music, a movie poster far too reminiscent of a sex pistols album cover, and sporting an American actress not even attempting an Austrian accent fail so MISERABLY at truly conveying just who this young Queen was both in court and in private? It truly plays out as if a better title would have been The Virgin Suicide: 1793.
Let me tackle my grunts of dissatisfaction one at a time. Music. This, just like the completely ignored accents of Marie and Louis XVI, impresses upon the audience more a sense of laziness and wilted creativity in an attempt to be avante-garde. True creative genius would have been conveying a modern feeling of rock n'roll while staying within the relevant themes of the time period. Sophia Coppola, while a proven director, only manages to continually draw us out of the French Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette over and over with anachronistic lines and soundtracks. This use of modern music in period pieces isn't new, therefore not avante-garde, and did not work any better for me in A Knight's Tale. Inevitably it only dates the film causing it to lose its relevance to "modern audiences" when that "modern" is no longer chic...until, of course, it becomes "retro."
Rock n'roll?? The intensity of this film is more like listening to an old radio that only intermittently picks up a Top 40 Pop station and starts every day with an hour of white noise. This is no critique of the music selections, although those too were lacking. I speak of the passion, the energy, the sense of abandon and rebellion. While the cold handling of Marie's ingress to not only French life and married life, but the socially challenging politics of the French Court, would have been over-all considered well-done if there was a progressive build of tension which crescendo at some greatly dramatic denouement. What follows instead is a watered down, self-indulgent, wistful play-then-pout session that ultimately lacks the dramatic fire of such a rebellious woman, and pales in scandal to even the weakest of soap operas. The aforementioned Wikipedia article is a more exciting read than this film and wasted far less of my time while giving the added benefit of easy to follow character names. Other than Marie, Louis and the oh-so-sexy Count Ferson, my viewing partner and I resorted to referring to characters by their traits. The red-head chick. The gay guy. The Ambassador of Mercy guy. The King's whore. Etcetera.
The lack of character identification is a key indication of the lack-lustre performances of the cast. How one could collect such a brilliant group of people and fail to succeed is a mystery. Kirsten Dunst has only a handful of scenes in which she truly shines, most of which when she is NOT speaking. Danny Houston's appearances are sparse and far too brief. Rip Torn, Jason Schwartzman, Asia Argento, and an almost awkward insertion of Molly Shannon all fall short of inspiration. With such talented people, the question falls to material, direction or simply waning interest? Indeed, about the only emotion that Kirsten Dunst brings across quite clearly is deep frustration.
I identified completely.
The greatest tragedy of this film is that it fails to even portray the greatest tragedy of this woman's life! The French Revolution, for what it was, proved to be like any political uprising. Bloody and chaotic. Any war-induced governmental shift will result in the loss of lives and a string of political scape-goats waved to appease the masses and bolster favor for the new leaders. Marie Antoinette and Louis were exactly that. The absolutely outrageous accusations made against the woman during her two-day trial were SO harsh that even the very people who had stormed Versailles craving her blood fell on the side of sympathy for her. Ultimately, however, as history scripts, she was executed.
Sophia Coppolla's insipid biopic of the Queen went far past sympathetic to being completely uninspired and unsatisfying for its audience. One reviewer on IMDB so perfectly likened the film to "a movie about the Titanic that stops short of the sinking and all that nasty death at the end." And I think that description is more than adequate. While Sophia's other films, Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation are hailed for their under-stated delivery, and rightly so, Marie Antoinette was a woman of excesses in a time of decadence, understatedness seems an almost absurd tact to attempt and the tale falls more in line with her whimsical "woe-to-be-a-girl" films such as Lick a Star and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
While I try to commit myself to any film I watch, seeing it through to the end just as one would look at every corner of a painting before deciding it was crap...I admittedly only continued to watch this film for the sake of my viewing partner who had far more interest than I...and because I really wanted to see some fucking blood and a head roll by the end of the movie. It would have at least vindicated some of the two-hours spent gaping at the poorly researched presentation of a historical figure's life in the cinematic equivalent of paper dolls. No one in this film struck me as a three-dimensional human....just pretty paper dolls dressed up as the roles of a little girl's fantasy in which no one understands her, no one loves her, and she just wants to have fun. If written by a 15 year old, this film may seem insightful and mature. For a thirty-six year old writer and director, however, it is self-indulgent and vapid.
When one considers that at thirty-eight years old, the real Marie Antoinette had lost everything dear to her, including her head, the film does nothing to convince us that this was a great loss to France or Humankind. With one snip of my scissors...this two-dimensional Marie Antoinette loses its head. The charge? Failure to perform.