The honor of France was at stake last spring when Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette premiered at Cannes to a continuous accompaniment of hoots and whistles–“a welcome,” Le Monde reported, “even colder than the one reserved for The Da Vinci Code.” Note that “reserved.” The festival audience, ripe tomatoes at the ready, surely knew that decades earlier, in Si Versailles m’était conté, Sacha Guitry had given the French monarchy a storybook treatment no more fanciful than Coppola’s pop-rock approach. But Guitry had looked at French history from within; Coppola was doing it from without.
That’s why I’m glad to have watched Marie Antoinette not at Cannes but at the New York Film Festival, where an estrangement from eighteenth-century France could be perceived as the movie’s point instead of its problem.
Even before the Cure and Bow Wow Wow had drowned out Rameau on the soundtrack–before a pair of sneakers had shown up amid the heroine’s piles of footwear, or Asia Argento (as Du Barry) had complained, in fluent Brooklynese, that “Nobuddy treats me like a lady heah”–Coppola had estimated the gap between Marie’s era and our own and gauged it, correctly, as unbridgeable. The unit of measurement: Kirsten Dunst’s gaze. In the opening scene–filmed as a single emblematic shot–Dunst is discovered reclining in a lavender boudoir in which she turns her head and looks knowingly into the camera. This playful, simulated eye contact makes Marie seem to acknowledge her audience across a distance of centuries, while in the same gesture it exposes Dunst as a film actress–a modern counterfeit, posed within the semi-authentic trappings of Versailles.
When Marie Antoinette works (which is about two-thirds of the time, I’d guess), it tilts slightly toward this admission of imposture. Geopolitical maneuverings, court etiquette, the entirely public nature of the royal marriage bed: These French historical realities remain timebound and factual in Coppola’s film, rather than being converted into metaphors for some present-day situation in another part of the world. But the actors who pretend to live out the events–principally Dunst as Marie and Jason Schwartzman as the beamish boy fated to be Louis XVI–are emphatically Anglo-American and contemporary. Dunst remains Peter Parker’s romantic ideal, the unaffected, scrub-faced girl next door; and Schwartzman is still the slacker who wears a distracted expression, as if worried that someone will ask him a question he can’t answer. To see these two dancing together–grace hand in hand with self-consciousness–is a lovely joke in itself. To see them impersonating Marie and Louis is a minor revelation, showing how people like them (and us) can barely comprehend the life of Versailles.
Guitry’s droll pageantry is probably the wrong point of reference for this effect; and so, too, is the Modernist rigor of Roberto Rossellini’s history films. Coppola’s tone is more like that of Manoel de Oliveira’s deadpan renditions of nineteenth-century novels, but lighter and sweeter, as befits a queen who was fond of meringue.
That said, the concoction goes a little flat. Like most stories that entail rising and falling action, Marie Antoinette loses energy as the characters stumble toward their end; and Coppola, at this point in her career, is not enough of a screenwriter to have overcome the problem. As a supplier of dialogue, she can be precise and surprising. As a director, she’s a natural. (The wedding ceremony of Louis and Marie has all the sex that their marriage lacks. Marie winces, as if deflowered, when the ring is nudged onto her finger. Her bridal contract, blotted with ink, becomes the surrogate for a blood-stained sheet.) But when it comes to shaping the narrative, Coppola can think of nothing better than to follow a straight line, starting with Marie’s departure from Austria in 1770 and shlepping on to her impending departure from this world.