Marie Antoinette is a creamy French pastry of a film: sweet and lovely to look at, but not very filling. The movie hardly deserves the megaton bomb status it received at the Cannes Film Festival—where French moviegoers reportedly booed it—but it still falls short of telling a clear, relatable story.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Marie Antoinette, whose mother (Marianne Faithfull, a witty bit of casting), arranges for her 14-year-old daughter to marry Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) to cement an alliance between Austria and France. Literally stripped of everything she's ever known, Marie finds herself bewildered by the backstabbing social atmosphere of the French court at Versailles, overwhelmed by the duties when she becomes queen, and driven to despair by the foppish Louis' unwillingness to consummate their marriage so an heir can be produced. The film ends well before Antoinette's famous beheading, but not before many, many scenes of fancy clothes, large wigs and elaborate meals.
Shot on location at Versailles, the film looks fantastic, and it deserves Oscar nods for costumes, art direction and possibly catering. Still, it's a good-looking plate with nothing on it.
Coppola clearly identifies with Marie, but her efforts to impose a character arc onto the character's life fall flat. Publicity materials indicate that Marie is supposed to be a character fighting for her individuality in an oppressive upper-class world, forced into a position that she's not ready for. That's material for an interesting story, but that story isn't in the final product.
There are also some awkward attempts to relate Antoinette's world to the present, portraying Louis and Marie as examples of a naïve aristocracy so overwhelmed with maintaining tradition that they remain out of touch with the rest of the world. Dunst is introduced carrying around a tiny dog à la Paris Hilton; there's a montage of trying on Manolo Blahnik shoes (seriously--Coppola had the Spanish designer create hundreds of shoes for the film); and Louis XVI's support of the American Revolution is subtly related to Iraq. It's all cute satire, but it doesn't necessarily make the characters more relatable. Visual homages to Barry Lyndon and Amadeus only serve to remind us how much better those films are.
Likewise, the use of anachronistic 1980s pop music doesn't serve much of a purpose. Marie's coronation is set to The Cure's "Plainsong" and New Order's "Ceremony," but the songs don't provide any new information about what we're seeing; they just exist to provide aural accompaniment that soars over the proceedings.
Coppola has a strange fascination with the New Wave group Bow Wow Wow, putting three of their songs on the soundtrack and citing the cover to their album The Last of the Mohicans as an influence on the film. The film is even copyrighted to "I Want Candy, LLC." The Last of the Mohicans cover is a recreation of a Manet painting with a sexualized image of the teen lead singer, just as Dunst is playing a sexualized teenager through most of the film. Coppola seems to love the idea of relating classical images to New Wave music, but, like the album cover, the result comes off as a pretentious gimmick.
Dunst, Schwartzman and a number of supporting players, including Judy Davis, Steve Coogan and Molly Shannon, do their best but have little to work with. Dunst's performance mainly consists of close-ups of her thin, distressed face; she doesn't have the presence to convey Marie's supposed maturity in the later part of the film--she's mostly overwhelmed by her hair and costumes.
The best performances come from Rip Torn as Louis XV and Asia Argento as his consort, Madame Du Barry. Argento's character is a better-defined version of Marie, a crude, put-upon outsider, and Torn's bullfrog-like features have rarely seemed sadder. When the mature, complex characters exit the film halfway through, Coppola kicks up the visuals and music, but it's still not enough to regain the energy lost by their departure.
Coppola's first screenwriting credit was for "Life Without Zoe," her father Francis' contribution to the 1989 anthology New York Stories. The story bore more than a passing resemblance to Kay Thompson's children's book Eloise, about the little girl who lives at the Plaza. Coppola should try an Eloise film; she's the perfect choice for a poor little rich girl in a lush environment. She's clearly trying to say something of the sort with Marie Antoinette, but it's not working. Like the main character, the film throws a great party, but doesn't have a head on its shoulders.