The Queen Is Dead
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.
I missed the deeper poignancy that Marie's later scenes might have evoked had a master such as Oliveira directed them. But the tired businessman in me enjoyed every joke, musical number and costume change in Marie Antoinette, while the critic could feel grateful for Coppola's intelligence, which let Marie be herself and not, say, a forerunner of the Bush twins.
France still has its honor; and so too, I think, does the New York Film Festival.
It's a tease to praise movies that can't be found in the theaters; so until some of my favorite selections in this year's New York Film Festival go into release, I will hold off writing about them. I long to tell you that Syndromes and a Century by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is as refreshing as a perfectly ripened mango, and that Bong Joon-ho's The Host carries forward the monster-movie tradition with a wit and a brio that are as uncontainable as the story's rampaging, computer-animated amphibian. But you see, I refrain.
Here, though, are a few more festival pictures that you can sample now.
Climates, by writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, tracks the unhappiness of a couple through three regions of Turkey: from the sunny Aegean coast (where the characters vacation miserably) to Istanbul under perpetual thunderclouds to the snowy, mountainous east. The topography changes, but the faces and emotional patterns don't. Isa (played by Ceylan) is an architectural historian who still hasn't finished his dissertation, though he's reached his mid-40s. His face is long, asymmetrical and sardonic, so that he looks at times like John Cassavetes covered by whitish stubble. His body, though still lean, is apparently subject now to the pains of aging; he sleeps with his head in a bureau drawer to relieve his aching neck. The conspicuously younger Bahar (played by the director's wife, Ebru Ceylan) works as a production designer for television dramas--which means that while Isa is perpetually getting ready to write about art, Bahar actually makes some, though without receiving any intellectual credit for it. Bahar's lustrous long hair, soft lips and dreamy, wide-set eyes make of her face a deep, gorgeous pool where sorrow wells up in alternation with rage.
Isa breaks with Bahar (who is fed up anyway); he cats around Istanbul; then he chases off to the provinces, where he tries to persuade Bahar to quit work for him. In outline, the story is simple. In realization, it's startling, alarming, extreme. When characters grapple on the floor (as they do for minutes on end in one sequence), they don't quit until they've shoved themselves right into the camera. When they erupt into violence (as Bahar and Isa do in one dreadful incident), you fear for them and the actors, too, who apparently risked their necks for the scene. Some viewers have called Climates beautiful, and I suppose it is, with its ruins and meteorology, its seascapes and mountainscapes and grungily picturesque lanes. But the film's most memorable images, by far, are its faces; its most powerful forces are confused, unstoppable desires.
Little Children, by contrast, seems a sedate affair, as mannered in its suburban American way as Marie Antoinette. Whereas Climates is suggestive and elliptical in its storytelling, Little Children is ample and expository. There's even an all-knowing, slightly amused narrator to explain the characters to you in voiceover, as if this were an installment of Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy.
This is merely to say that wounds borne lightly can still hurt.
Directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom), based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (Election), Little Children is the story of an adulterous love affair carried out by a woman who is too smart for the life she's leading and a man who's a little too dumb. Sarah (Kate Winslet) used to study literature, but now she holes up in one room of her big, overdecorated house (the better to avoid her creepy husband) and shuttles her young daughter to the playground, where she has nothing, but nothing, in common with the other mothers. The equally unemployed Brad (Patrick Wilson) tries to mollify his daunting wife by pretending to study for the bar exam (he's flunked it repeatedly). Daytimes, while she's at work, he shuttles their young son to the same playground that Sarah frequents, where he serves as an object of fascination for the mothers. "The Prom King," they call him. As if on a dare (whether from herself or the other women, who can say), Sarah introduces herself to Brad one morning and cadges from him a hug and a kiss. By the third reel, they're banging away energetically in the laundry room, while the kids nap upstairs behind one of those useful accordion gates.
"Do you feel bad about this?" they ask in the aftermath. Understanding themselves to be good people, they would like to feel bad. But worse people live in the neighborhood--a paroled sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley), a raging ex-cop (Noah Emmerich)--and summer days are long.
All this is funny and touching but also familiar--so familiar that at one point Sarah can be roped into a book club meeting where the suburban ladies discuss Madame Bovary. It's perhaps a mark of the story's conventionality that some of the minor characters (Haley in particular) register more vividly than the leads. And yet Field's effortlessly fluent, impeccably timed direction moves the film along as if it were all freshly observed, while Winslet and Wilson, in a triumph of nuanced, unshowy acting, bring the shadow of desperation and dangerousness to the surface of good, normal people.
Fewer documentaries than usual were included in this edition of the New York Film Festival--but one of them was Michael Apted's 49 Up, and that counts for seven in itself.
Not so much a film as a lifelong project, 49 Up began in 1964 as a one-off television program, in which the producers brought together and interviewed a disparate group of 7-year-old girls and boys. The initial show "had a sly, ingenuous surface," Apted recalls, which hid a "fierce indictment of the British class system." The program proposed that these children, who so charmingly lisped the prejudices of their elders, might provide a glimpse of England in the year 2000. To test that proposition, Apted every seven years has revisited as many of the subjects as would still speak with him.
What we have now, in 49 Up, is an astonishing time-lapse photograph, not so much of England in the year 2006 as of a dozen varied people who have "grown fat and lost their hair" (as one of them says with an edgy pretense of good humor). Do their lives confirm the inflexibility of the class system? I'd say rather that they show how people have remained within changed classes. The East Enders, for example, are more prosperous than they might ever have imagined, but they have scattered from their old neighborhood, with its darker skinned people. The gender divide, meanwhile, is unaltered. The men talk more than the women do about their jobs; while the women (who as a group are relatively embittered) talk more than the men about mates, children and illness.
But these are generalities. The wonder of 49 Up is its unfolding, within a little more than two hours, of so many specific lives: the taxi driver, the librarian, the barrister, the college professor, the mother on disability, the recovering madman. They've mostly followed the paths you might have predicted in 1964; and each of them is a surprise.