Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review of Marie-Antoinette (2006)

...or How To Watch a Movie That Has No Screenplay. I saw Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette last night, accompanied by a friend and some good wine and cheese. It was the only way to make it through a film which was nearly unwatchable for me. My friend, who lived in France for ten years, shared my opinion that it had no plot and no screenplay. I was ready to be annoyed by the historical inaccuracies (which were legion) but on the whole was expecting an edgy, irreverent, slightly burlesque version of Marie-Antoinette's life. However, the Coppola film was not clever enough to generate any reaction but laughter at the depths of banality into which it hastily plunged.

Let me interrupt myself to say to those who did enjoy the movie that I understand why you liked it. In spite of the sometimes bizarre cinematography, Versailles, the gardens, the Petit Trianon were captured in all their splendor. The star of the film was really the Sun King, Louis XIV, the one responsible for such grandeur. The birds singing in the background were a lovely touch as well. Also, the growing tenderness between Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, although it could have been developed more, was sweetly endearing. The last scene, when they are being carted off to their doom and Louis (Jason Schwartzman) looks at Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) and she bravely smiles at him in return, was worth the price of the DVD.

I think that what made the film compelling for many was the snippets taken from actual letters and conversations, for the real life of Marie-Antoinette is the stuff of legend; there is magic in her very name. The places where she lived are imbued with a mystery of sorrow and enchantment, which even the most crass of filmmakers cannot erase.

I found myself feeling embarrassed for Ms. Coppola. I found myself pitying the distinguished biographers who were consulted in the making of this tedious film, especially Antonia Fraser, whose work "inspired" it. I would be mortified to have my name plastered all over what was basically a forty million dollar high school play.

There was no dialogue. Now I am someone who revels in a lively discussion. I enjoy writing the conversations in my novels; eventually the characters take on a life of their own, if they have been researched carefully enough. It is exciting to see historical persons come to life in the pages of a manuscript. Why didn't Ms. Coppola get someone to write some dialogue for her? (I would have been happy to have sold her the dialogue from Trianon.) Conversation was an art at the royal court; Marie-Antoinette surrounded herself with witty, charming friends. The Coppola film has the charm of a frat party.

Anyone who does a historical piece, be it a novel or film, knows that what makes it authentic is the consistent attention to details. It is the little historical fine points that bring the past to life. Otherwise, why bother with history? Why go to so much work over period costumes and then have people do and say things that are totally out of character for the era? Sometimes people would bow and curtsy as the princess walked by, and other times they would not. The impression I got was of sloppy direction and sheer indifference to the atmosphere of eighteenth century France.

The scenes of the Fersen affair were a bizarre intrusion into what little story line existed. It did not make sense to show Antoinette having sex with Fersen when she was finally happy with her husband and baby. The affair had no passion, no sensuality, no romance. It was reducing the relationship of a man and a woman, even an illicit one, to mere copulation, as in a brothel. The scene of Kirsten wearing nothing but stockings and fan is extremely degrading and insulting to the memory of Queen Marie-Antoinette. It was an enfleshment of one of the revolutionary pamphlets. The persons responsible for this further smearing of la reine-martyr should be profoundly ashamed of themselves.

What offended me even more was the portrayal of Madame de Polignac. Gabrielle was raised by nuns and was a very refined lady, not a loud, vulgar slut. She also had her own family and was an attentive mother to her children, as well as being governess to the queen's children. Not that she was a saint but she was a person of discretion and charm, who loved simplicity and country life. She was completely misrepresented in the film.

Why was Antoinette always shown lolling around? The queen was a busy lady. Even in her leisure she would be occupied with needlework. She embroidered much of the upholstery in her rooms. It almost made me fall asleep to see her prone on the grass all the time.

It is a shame. There were many accomplished actors involved in the production, if only they had been given a screenplay. If only they had had some direction, and a diction coach to mainstream the accents. The varying accents, as well as the rock music, were among the most jarring and distracting elements of the film. The music alone was enough to make me want to turn it off, as well as the constant gorging on sweets. I have never seen such an obscene display of pastries. I will not eat a French pastry again for a long time.

If you watch this film, watch it with a friend, or watch it at a party. The only reason I persevered through the DVD until the bitter end is that the conversation we were having about the film was more interesting than the film. And this is another bright spot of the Coppola film; it has sparked discussion about the real Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI and the French Revolution. Hopefully, people will read up on her, and not be content with the gross distortions of the movie. Share


Anonymous said...

First rate, world class review. But what kind of film can one expect from a director raised in L.A.

Anonymous said...

I've just read your article and found it to be right on target! Thank God we had wine to get us through the film! Like you said, what a shame that such an opportunity to tell a truly heroic story was lost!

Anonymous said...

Consultion with the author for an adaptation of his/her novel doesn't always weigh much in the end.

Jeffrey Smith said...

Unfortunately, almost every period film shows more about its own time than the time portrayed. We live in an age where the chattering classes are buried in banality. They want to think it's the natural state of humanity, so they give us things like this, then claim we want it.

SuzanneG said...

Before I found your blog, I listened to Michael Medved's review about the movie:
I'm still undecided if I want to see it. thanks for the great review!

elena maria vidal said...

I totally agree with Michael Medved. Thanks, Suzanne.

It is worth seeing for the scenes of the palace.

Alice Gunther said...

What a well done, intelligent, and interesting review. Thank you, Elena!

Anonymous said...

Great review, EMV. Terrific suggestion to save watching this film for a wine and cheese party--that sounds rather fun, actually!

God bless!

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks so much, Alice!

Yes, Georgette, there is nothing more fun than laughing at a bad movie, with good comapny and good wine.

pimprenelle said...

What can I say, dear... I could not agree with you more ! It is the best review I have ever read about this movie. Right on target, really !

Unknown said...

Hm, I have to say I disagree rather strongly. I thought the movie was quite lovely and very well done.

I didn't find the lack of dialogue terribly troubling; in fact it was not something that I have to say really even occurred to me.

With regard to the historical inaccuracies: I think it is safe to say that we have to give Hollywood some level of leniency when they are dealing with historical subjects. Strict, rigid, historical formalism can lead, frankly, to boredom.

Whether or not this is a good thing is, of course, up for debate, and obviously it is not, but a certain amount of latitude must be expected in a film that wants to draw an audience. The affair, for example, was an example of this.

For my part, I stand by the review I wrote for my own blog and stand by the movie; I didn't find the music selections jarring, but rather interesting.

A friend of mine commented the other day that he didn't like the movie because it "made him feel sorry for Marie Antoinette." He went on to say how she deserved it, &c. I did my best to correct the view, of course, but the point is that the movie does, I think, a good job of humanising a figure who is too often surrounded by too much mystery, magic and distortion. Whether or not he *wanted* to feel sorry for her is not the point; the point is that the movie had the effect of generating that emotion, and THAT, at least, I think makes it worth it, if nothing else (although I would, of course, contest the nothing else point).

Your concerns are valid, to be sure, but I think your point that it has generated discussion over the real Marie Antoinette is the most important.

elena maria vidal said...

You make some excellent points, Jason. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, which will be helpful to my readers.

Yes, I am glad that the film has inspired sympathy for Marie-Antoinette. The basic facts of her life are fascinating. Personally, I have never found historical accuracy to be dull, if it is well done.

Indeed, it would take a great deal of effort to make Marie-Antoinette BORING. Ms. Coppola has accomplished that feat, nevertheless. I am sorry to disagree with you, but I thought the film was tedious. That is just my opinion, my reaction.

I hated the modern music she used. But then, it is not my type of music. It never was.

My brother Pat, who is very well read and very cultured, LOVED the film. He would totally agree with you. To each his own, I guess.