To the synth-enhanced post-punk sounds of The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and New Order, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette reconceptualizes its titular French queen as a child of the ‘80s, positing her as a young, rich, powerful and fabulous material girl more interested in ornate wigs, outrageous diamonds and designer shoes than the tumultuous political affairs of her late eighteen-century era. As with The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, mood is everything for Coppola here, her sumptuously light, delicate mise-en-scène capturing the opulence of life in Versailles as well as the overriding sense of indulgence adopted by the supremely wealthy. It’s a lifestyle to which 14-year-old Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) enters somewhat reluctantly via an amusingly staged de-clothing ceremony but then, after a few carousing gambling parties and exorbitant spending binges, comes to eagerly embrace. Marie Antoinette is at its best when unabashedly celebrating its milieu’s decadence, with Coppola ignoring most History Channel-worthy specifics (save for Marie’s dismissal of her infamous retort to starving Parisians: “Let them eat cake”) in favor of capturing the atmosphere of a superficial royal life which – as conveyed by Coppola’s superimposition of gossipy, sex-related chit-chat over shots of a serene Marie, the revelry of her booze, coke and opium-fueled all-nighters, and the parental expectations that weigh heavily on Marie’s soul – closely resembles modern, cliquish high school society.
Dunst aids in this contemporary characterization by always maintaining a devilishly girlish smile and impertinent attitude, and her poised performance is most effective during predominantly visual, dialogue-free sequences (such as her heavily attended galas and early morning waking routines overseen by a frightening Judy Davis) in which Marie’s breezy, charming confidence shines through. Amidst the period-specific costumes and lavish architecture lurks a portrait of teenage vibrancy unnaturally restrained by civilized ritual and propriety. Yet the more the film attempts to be about something more than an intoxicatingly (and, at times, somewhat repellently) extravagant ambiance, the more it reveals its regrettably threadbare narrative and thematic foundation. In Coppola’s assured hands, however, any minor third-act missteps into heavy plotting (involving the crown’s ill-advised funding of the American Revolution and the subsequent fall of Versailles) aren’t enough to sully the preceding joy elicited by the interplay between a cagey Rip Torn (as King Louis XV) and bitchy Asia Argento (as his mistress Madame du Barry), a quixotically composed affair between Marie and a Swedish soldier, Jason Schwartzman’s humorously introverted turn as Louis XVI, and a footwear shopping spree set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” that – like the film itself – is as delectably frothy as a dollop of whip cream on one of Marie’s beloved puff pastries.
(The 44th New York Film Festival)