October 19, 2006


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Marie Antoinette (PG-13)
Sofia Coppola takes the knowing smirk of the most popular girl at Beverly Hills High School and gives it to the pampered, highly coiffed queen of France in Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is just an upper middle class princess in the Austrian court when her mother Empress Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithful) decides that she should be the champagne toast that seals the friendship between the Hapsburgs and the Bourbon court. A drowsy Antoinette is sent by coach to the French border, where she is stripped of her friends, her dress and, most distressingly, her dog Mops (she is told she may have all of the French dogs she likes). Re-outfitted in French finery, she takes her first steps into her new homeland as the fiance of Dauphin Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzmann), the future king of France. There is, of course, a current king of France, Louis XV (Rip Torn), who is a big leechy CEO type. He flaunts his married mistress Madame du Barry (Asia Argento) and doesn't know quite what to do when his son isn't able or willing or interested in consummating his marriage to Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette, only 14 when she's married, doesn't know what to do either. For the first seven-some years of her marriage, the ruling stress of her life is that she hasn't given birth to an heir (or, you know, anything). It is a stress she tries to get over like any good celebrity with more money and charm than daily purpose — she shops, she eats, she parties, she drinks and watches the sun rise with her friends and she shops some more.

When Marie Antoinette is 19, King Louis XV dies, making her queen and Louis XVI king — at the moment of his elevation he notes, rightly, that they are too young to rule. And really, it is this more than Marie Antoinette's Imelda Marcos-like spending habits that does the country in. She's too young to know that looking chic isn't always the way to win the public over and he's too young not to question his aides when they say sending money to the Americans to fight their revolution is no biggie, they'll just raise taxes. When she's giving birth to her daughter and raising her in perfect Martha Stewart style in the French countryside, the rabble are being buried in debt and poverty. When she begins an affair with a dishy soldier, the streets are agitating for rebellion. When she gives birth to a son, Antoinette seems to believe that she's fulfilled her purpose but it's already too late for her to turn the tsunami of public opinion that is ready to swept her into oblivion.

So, she shops some more.

We're used to a Coppola tackling the epic but it's the attention to detail that makes this a Sofia affair. She gets Marie Antoinette. Perhaps part of her has even been Marie Antoinette — expected to be far more sophisticated than she could possibly be at too young an age, the subject of public scorn and ridicule for not meeting expectations. Sofia Coppola gets women, particularly young women, in a way that shows them for all their flaws and imperfections as well as their hope and promise without turning them into caricatures. In one scene, a lovesick Marie Antoinette spends an afternoon blushing and dreaming of her soldier boyfriend. The scene is sweet and funny but doesn't look down on her. It shows us Marie Antoinette's folly but also her humanity.

This is, of course, as much the work of Dunst as Coppola. Dunst manages to show us a convincing transformation of a girl into a woman while still keeping the sense of mischief that the soundtrack of Gang of Four, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Bow Wow Wow and New Order songs suggests. The movie begins to Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It" with a pampered, fully queenly Marie Antoinette giving us a look while lounging around, spa-like, as a maid attends to some beauty treatment. The scene perfectly captures both the character about to unfold and the overall look and feel of the movie.

That look and feel? Pure glamour, though with hints of the kind of unreal pastel fun that makes the strawberry-topped cakes match the ribbon-festooned shoes and puffs of the powdered-pale deep décolletage balance the height of the meringue-like hair. Somehow by exaggerating the color, by letting the actors keep their natural accent and by using anachronistic music, Sofia Coppola's confection seems even realer, even more natural than some biopic that strives for museum-perfect authenticity. And when a final scene gives us a glimpse of Marie Antoinette's bedroom, trashed and with the diamond-like chandelier lying on the floor, we get a sense, yes, of a monarchy fallen but also of a girl who's partied just a little too hard. Which, like so many of Coppola's sly modern statements snuck in between the historical recreations, seems just as fitting. A

— Amy Diaz