As a person virtually addicted to the History and Biography Channels I have to get into a certain mindset when I watch a so called ‘bio-pic’. History should be provided by, I don’t know, historians not necessarily directors, screen writers and actors. Sure, some of Hollywood’s biographies may be close to the actual events but for the most part the lives of even the most important historical personage needs a little dramatic license when being committed to film. This is why films depicting real people usually state things like ‘based on true events’. You have to keep this in mind when watching movies like Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Ms Coppola has stated openly that this film is an ‘interpretation’ of people, places and events and is not intended to reflect historical accuracy. This is an artistic journey into imagination not a history book so just take the film for what it is, a movie. The venue for this work is Showtime not the History Channel.
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is only a fourteen year old girl when she finds herself part of a political deal. As the Archduchess of Austria she is to be used to seal a treaty between her homeland and France. Marie is not a politically savvy girl; her world has always been one of pampered decadence betting her tender years, weaker gender and exalted social status. Although she is taken to the lavish Palace of Versailles to wed the Dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman), the future King Louis the XVI, she was bred as the beautiful princess and queen, not an actual ruler. As young Marie is taken over the border to France her entourage is stopped by French officials. There the young bride to be is stripped and completely examined. After all the deal was for a virgin and they buyers have a right to know the merchandise is in proper order. She also has to surrender her Austrian dogs; only home grown French dogs will do for the future queen of the land. Such invasive and impersonal treatment extends to her wedding night when the whole court watches the newly wed couple go to bed and the Cardinal blesses their impending union. Now Marie’s only job is to provide an heir to the new king. Since he is not particularly interested in women this leaves Marie with a lot of time on her hands. What is a teenage girl to do with almost unlimited wealth and social status at her command? For Marie indulgence is a way of life, actually she makes it into almost an art form. She becomes the fashion icon for the country with her elaborate gowns and hairstyles. Her love for chocolate is shown as she gulps down and enormous quantity while the soundtrack plays the Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy." She also has an oysters and opium stoked affair with Count Axel von Fersen (Jamie Dornan). Like many modern girls (and women) Marie also has a thing for shoes. Her shoe closets are larger than most apartments I have lived in here in New York City. The main problem in her otherwise carefree life is the pressure on the girl to produce the much sought after heir. She seems unable to arouse her new husband much to the chagrin of the royal courts in both countries. Even though it’s the king’s fault the royal equipment won’t work the problem is naturally, for the time period, paced on Marie. The union would remain unconsummated for seven years. Unable to find much to do in the marriage bed Marie basically parties with her two new best friends; the Princesse Lamballe (Mary Nighy) and Duchesse de Polignac (Rose Byrne). For these girls there is nothing out of their reach. Excess becomes a regular part of their lives. As the audience knows, even if the girls do not, the French revolution is brewing and such excesses are not well tolerated by a starving mob of peasants.
Instead of trying to watch this as a historically based film it may be better to think of it as an indictment of today’s celebutantes. Even if you don’t actively follow the antics of the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears, you have to be aware of them. Marie is the perfect mirror to reflect these modern girls. She was born to money and the power that that brings. Her concerns were focuses on clothes, inebriation, shoes, sex and personal pleasure. If Marie was alive today she would be a regular on the gossip oriented ‘E News’ or perhaps a subject of MTV’s ode to spoiled girls, ‘My Sweet Sixteen’. Sophia Coppola knows this life well. As the daughter of an A-List director and relative to several top actors she grew up with fame and fortune. Unlike Marie or her modern day counterparts Ms Coppola has talent as a director and works for a living. She reinforces the connection to the modern tabloid sweeties with a modern soundtrack and by having the actors deliver their lines in their natural accents instead of period vocal mannerisms. Coppola uses fast cuts to emulate the You-Tube video style so well known today. She also managed to arrange for unprecedented access to the actual Palace of Versailles creating a beautiful setting of opulence. There is no real mention of the political environment of the times which works here. In Marie’s world such things existed only on the extreme peripheral of her life.
Kirsten Dunst may be a bit too old at twenty five to play a fourteen year old but her talent makes the role work. She is perfect; inhabiting her character with flair. Dunst can go from the almost innocent young girl to party animal in a split second. She plays Marie as a girl unprepared for the life that she was forced into. She was denied marriage for love, having to take an uninterested man to her bed. She was given every materialistic pleasure imaginable but was not afforded any means or incentive to grow as a person. Jason Schwartzman is a better actor than I though; playing a man not interested in a beautiful young bride. He gives us an effete young man with unlimited power and wealth but little training in being an actual ruler.
Sony Pictures has done a great job bringing this film to DVD. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is stunning. The color balance is perfect; each color is vivid and bright. The contrast is without flaw. The Dolby 5.1 audio is amazing. The rear speakers give a full ambience especially in scenes with huge rooms. The sub woofer comes alive with the rock oriented sound track. There is, of course, a making of featurette that goes into how the production was brought to life. One fun extra is a MTV ‘Cribs’ style tour of Versailles by Jason Schwartzman. Take this film as it was intended, a look a lonely girl swept up by wealth, not an historical documentary.