Sofia Coppola has risen in Hollywood to A-list status after her magnificent debut, The Virgin Suicides, and the over-long, funny at times, critical darling Lost in Translation. Due to the enormous success of Translation, she was able to rework the production, with a bigger budget, on her passion project Marie Antoinette. While trying to stick to historical accuracies when able, she crafted a loose interpretation of the young Queen’s life from leaving Austria for marriage until the fateful storming of the Bastille. Coppola’s father had success with directing a period piece in his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but I must say Sophia has outdone him on style. The scenery and costumes are straight out of Versailles circa the late 1700’s and really are beautiful to behold. To counteract this look of the past, we are treated to a soundtrack of contemporary music: loud, hard-hitting rock nicely juxtaposed with the life of excess onscreen. While it worked to great effect, it is a shame that it worked better as a way to keep me awake during the long and boring tale, which contained not a shred of plot. This was perhaps the most luscious film I’ve seen as far as the senses go; it’s just too bad there was no substance behind it.
If you have kept up with the hoopla surrounding its release at Cannes, you will know about the booing that the French people gave it upon completion. Then we had the obligatory retorts by its’ creator and actors explaining how this was a vision of her life and not a history lesson. Unfortunately I can’t give that statement credit due to the fact that the movie played like a history lesson. We have long takes of the royalty’s activities, small vignettes of life cut together without any progression besides the passing of time. There is no struggle, there is no reason to care for these spoiled children as they play; we as an audience are voyeurs, looking through a window at the life of the Queen, not emotionally involved in anything happening. Now I thought Lost in Translation had a too thin a script and plot to warrant an Oscar nomination let alone the victory it achieved, Marie Antoinette, however, has even less. Coppola can write perfect dialogue for these people as they live their lives in the limelight and under archane rules and regulations, but dialogue is not enough. We need a story to be interested in, complete with problems and suspense where one can make a decision about what they hope will happen next. Instead we are given a reenactment of life, a history lesson written and then made alive.
It is hard to really hate this film, though, as even though there was no story whatsoever to warrant a running time of two hours, the visuals and acting are superb. Kirsten Dunst is so calm and infectious to watch, that it seems she might have just been ad-libbing the entire time and saying what she herself would say in that situation. The comfort level is great and really adds to the believability of the character. Coppola’s cousin Jason Schwartzman is brilliantly shy and unconfident as the young heir to the throne before his gradual evolution into a man with principles and a real love for his wife and children. Most of the other big names have small roles that they excel in; nothing too memorable, but nothing glaringly out of place. The radiant Rose Byrne is comically perpetually inebriated, Asia Argento has a nicely complex role that never is built upon to maybe spice the story up a little with, and Rip Torn, although his usual loud and obnoxious self, is rather subdued and effective. Credit is given to Steve Coogan, who is almost unrecognizable as straight man unlike previous comedic roles, and to Danny Huston, who leaves his mark on a part that lasts maybe five total minutes.
Coppola has talent—there is no question—and at times here shows us some gorgeous moments. The composition of shots early on to show Antoinette’s isolation are superb, a slow-motion action shot of a soldier on horseback at the end is exactly what’s needed for the emotional resonance at that time, and a quick shot of Dunst in the fields at Versailles with a ladybug taking flight from her fingertip show a keen eye for detail. Another thing she has going for her is the use of music. Throughout all three of her movies, the soundtrack has been a great enhancer, here especially during the second half, right about when I Want Candy plays. I just feel she needs to work on her writing a bit more. Lost in Translation was a sprawling tale that could have used some fine-tuning to create interest in the characters rather than relying on Bill Murray’s natural charisma, and with this film she desperately needed a script doctor to help her construct an interesting beginning to go with the magnificent final fifteen minutes. The end of this film is some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen all year, the emotions displayed by both Dunst and Schwartzman are heartfelt and real. To see the results of the evolution into honor and responsibility that they took is astonishing, as well as the pitch-perfect final frame. It is just a shame that the first two hours of the movie did nothing to show that process. I still hold out hope that Sophia will make the masterpiece that is buried inside her. Also, maybe her brother Roman, who was Assistant Director here, will recover the directing bug and finally film a sophomore effort to go along with, one of my favorite films, CQ. Hopefully after such a well-written and produced debut he won’t lose his way like his sister seems to have thus far.