Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Review of Marie-Antoinette (2006)

...or How To Watch a Movie That Has No Screenplay. I saw Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette two months ago, 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 almost as much 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.



Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It is one thing to be able to replicate scenery and mode of dress, there are enough portraits etc. from which to rely....but the diction and language was appalling.

Anonymous said...


thanks for the critique. What a missed opportunity for Sophia Coppola(SP?).

I will still rent it but am ready for the disappointment.

BTW: I did BUY the DVD of 'The Queen' and can say it is VERY good..Helen Mirren is a tour de force in it....

Yours in Christ,


elena maria vidal said...

I agree, alaughland.

Yes, marie, it is worth seeing just for the scenes of Versailles.

I am really dying to see "The Queen."

Anonymous said...

I agree, too. I watched the movie a couple of days ago and I was really disappointed. I had been waiting for a good film, with a few historical flaws, but this was horrifying. No dialogues and no plot, the only things that made it not a complete fiasco was the beautiful scenery and the dresses. Why do people say that it was a good movie? Only because Sophia Coppola directed it?

Anonymous said...

Being a fanatic of European history, that of France in particular, I was not "shocked" by Sophia Coppola's film because, expecting the worst, I was prepared. What saddened me most was the depiction of Louis XVI as a dumb dumb while, on the contrary, he was one of the most intelligent kings France ever had! And, while I have nothing against Jason Schwartzman, the choice of this actor to portray Louis XVI was very bad. Louis XVI was tall and, in fact, quite handsome when you look at portraits of him when he was a young man. A six-foot tall actor should have been chosen, a man towering over Marie-Antoinette! What really infuriated me in the movie was the sight of Louis XVI/Jason Schwartzman going down the stair in front of the castle of Versailles... with a crown on his head! French kings did not wear a crown, except at the time of their coronation at the cathedral of Reims. And that was a rather heavy crown that no man would or could have worn going dandily down the steps leading to the Bassin de Latone!

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Eglantine! Thanks for contributing your thoughts!