Once upon a time, there lived a queen who had lots of shoes, did almost nothing, and never said “let them eat cake.” Sofia Coppola, who had made a really very good film a few years earlier about people who weren’t doing anything but were still self-aware enough to be kind of worried about it, decided her follow-up would be about this queen, except wait! She’d put early 80’s new-wave songs into the soundtrack, in case we had trouble relating to Kirsten Dunst in a period costume.
Just so you know where I stand on the issue, using “I Want Candy” in any movie is pretty much a cop-out, a gesture as empty as the puffed pastries and shoes the song is used to illustrate. I can’t imagine what I’m supposed to learn by this juxtaposition which is more of a shallow reiteration—is it that Marie Antoinette was a party girl who liked nice things? Amazing! Now, if Coppola had decided that New Order was the perfect commentary on the excesses of the pre-Revolutionary French court, then fine. I can roll with that, but she has to work for it. It doesn’t even seem like she’s making a comment on the early 80’s, as far as I can tell. It might have been cool if she’d used more MTV techniques, or integrated the anachronism in a ballsier fashion, but she didn’t. It just seems tacked-on.
The movie does a good job of showing us the utter otherworldliness of life at Versailles. Antoinette clearly has no idea what goes on outside the palace grounds. Trouble is, neither do we. For a film about someone who was the ultimate victim of class warfare, there’s a shocking lack of class discussion in it. A lot of time is spent not exploring why the king can’t get it up for Dunst, and then pow! the natives are restless, and coming for you! In a way, I suppose we’re as isolated as the royals from the unrest of the people, and that’s valid I suppose. But the absence of intrigue is almost total, and a cursory examination of the wikipedia article on the queen will reveal lots of juicy note-passing and backstabbing that’s apparently hardly worth mentioning. But would have made a more interesting film.
Coppola’s point seems to be that Marie was a hapless victim of national upheaval; irresponsible but oh such fun! But she doesn’t even address the family’s downfall; the first third of the film is an effective and attractive portrayal of a girl forced to “grow up” fast without ever really doing so, and then it dissolves into an eventless evocation of a rather boring life interrupted in time for the credits. Marie Antoinette actually got pretty interesting at this point, which makes the ending a confusing decision on the director’s part.
It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with the film. It’s more that not much is really satisfyingly right, either. Everyone does well, and it’s pretty, and the soundtrack is fun. But the only way I can call the film successful is if the purpose was to make me feel profoundly indifferent to it. Which pretty much still makes it unsuccessful, I’m afraid.