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New York Film Festival Review: Marie Antoinette

A Doomed Queen, Waiting for a Story

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New York Film Festival Review: Marie Antoinette

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette

It's all about the cake. In the first shot of Sofia Coppola's new movie, Kirsten Dunst looks straight at the camera and dips her finger into some frosting. There's the famous "let them eat..." line, and Coppola's queen gets to deny it first and say it, too. Early on, the Austrian-born Marie Antoinette is likened to apple strudel, later on a courtier can be heard to remark: "she looks like a piece of cake." It's the perfect metaphor for this superficial, messy confection of a movie.
Sofia Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation once again features an adorable young woman in strange surroundings, and there is karaoke--except this time it's baroque (baroquaoke?). Unfortunately, there's nothing nearly as sweet and personal as the relationship between Scarlett Johannson and Bill Murray that anchored Lost in Translation. The same ubercool hipster soundtrack is in effect, but since the synth pop alternates with period music, it only creates more distance to the characters.

Jason Schwartzman and Kirsten Dunst in "Marie Antoinette"

Marie Antoinette was filmed on location, and on first glance, its surface is certainly appealing. In lavish outfits, Kirsten Dunst ambles through Versailles, engages in some mild intrigue, throws parties, tries on shoes, and feeds her lap dogs, waiting, like us, for some sort of story.

That story is provided, for a while, by Marie Antoinette's quest to conceive an heir. Much rides on this because it will cement the Franco-Austrian alliance her arranged marriage to Louis XVI created. But the film never quite explains why Louis (Jason Schwartzman) won't deflower his bride. In absurd bedroom scenes that will seem especially prudish once John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus is released, the king half-heartedly climbs on top of his queen only to roll off again with a sigh. Finally, all it takes to resolve this narrative arc is a good talking to by Marie Antoinette's brother (Danny Huston), and this is when the film begins to flounder in earnest.
Jason Schwartzman's role, in particular, doesn't add up. He plays the bedraggled, disinterested monarch as a farcical buffoon, until, in the final minutes of the movie, we're suddenly asked to feel for him. Nothing Louis or Marie Antoinette do or say seems to have any connection to the way they meet their end--history is a forgone conclusion that has little to do with anybody's actions. Coppola goes through the motions of the biopic: coronation, check, mother's death, check, death of child, check, storming of the Bastille, check--until there's nowhere left to go but the guillotine.

Marie Antoinette at Versailles

There are some amusing moments along the way, but Marie Antoinette is caught up within the bubble of decadence it describes. There's plenty of cake and champagne, but there is precious little news about aristocracy, wealth, history, celebrity, pleasure, revolution, or anything else. When the people of France finally come for her, they arrive as noise, and finally we see an undistinguished mob wielding pitchforks and torches. Marie Antoinette leaves Versailles the way she arrived: oblivious.

Marie Antoinette screens for the public at the New York Film Festival on October 13 and 14, 2006. Columbia Pictures will release the film on October 20.
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