Off with Her Head
By Nick Pinkerton
Sofia Coppola, U.S., Columbia Pictures
Sofia Coppolaâ€™s tack for heading off the accusations of nepotism that greeted her nascent vocational fumblingsâ€”dabblings in acting, fashion, and smart-set hanging out preceded filmmakingâ€”has been a daring gambit. As if realizing that sheâ€™d never fully live down supercilious judgments about her having been handed off a much-coveted career the way many kids come of age into car keys, sheâ€™s built a preemptive strike into her filmmaking. The lassitude and the rhapsody of poor little rich girls is Coppolaâ€™s connective theme, deliberately placed so front-and-center as to form a daring feint: â€śWell, there it is. So what?â€ť
And, for the most part, itâ€™s served her. Nobody wants to state the obvious, the result being that the obvious isnâ€™t stated quite enoughâ€”A.O. Scott, in this morningâ€™s New York Times: â€śIt may be tempting to greet Marie Antoinette with a Jacobin snarl or a self-righteous sneer, since it is after all the story of the silly teenager who embodied a corrupt, absolutist state in its terminal decadence. But whereâ€™s the fun in such indignation?â€ť (Sorry, A.O., we canâ€™t all take the hard road and write gutsy copy like â€śThe costumes, designed by Milena Canonero, are arresting; K K Barrettâ€™s production design is appropriately sumptuousâ€¦â€ť)
In the face of a shameless steamer like Marie Antoinette, Iâ€™d just as soon court repetition. So: in addition to displaying a rather glib, arch comic sense (the awkward pause seems to be, for the beginning of the 21st century, what the pratfall was to the beginning of the 20th; the same â€śyou could hear a pin dropâ€ť schtick is currently hawking everything imaginable to the Conan-weaned 18-35 set during primetime commercial breaks), maladroit filmmaking that latches store-bought arty obliqueness to lastnightsparty.com vacuity, and a string of clumsy historical parallels (celebrity=royalty, or something), Coppolaâ€™s film is (all together now) solipsistic, shrilly melodramatic, and stunningly barren of human observation.
Before the chorus of â€śBut thatâ€™s the point!â€ť comes in, itâ€™s time for a remedial lesson in irony. Coppolaâ€™s biopic of Marie Antoinetteâ€”with Virgin Suicidesâ€™ Kirsten Dunst overtly American in the title roleâ€”reinvents the historically-out-of-favor Queen as a gentle Hapsburg tween, barely ready to reign over a prom, beset by circumstances beyond her control, her effervescent life-force encroached on by expectations of early marriage and birthright. Wall-to-wall post-punk mixtape music, coupled with Dunstâ€™s anachronistic â€śOMFG Iâ€™m ttly the Queen of France!?!â€ť performance, sets this apart from powdery PBS fare; the film opens on the dagger-plunge staccato of Gang of Fourâ€™s â€śNaturalâ€™s Not in Itâ€ť (opening lyric: â€śThe problems of leisure/ What to do for pleasureâ€ť), while Dunstâ€™s princess lies supine on a divan, directing her tight little feline smile at us. In ransom-note Sex Pistols font, we receive the title; on promotional posters, that same typeface is subtitled by the tagline â€śThe party that started a revolution.â€ť
So, following the trail of these pop signifiers, whatâ€™s being put across here? Is Coppolaâ€™s movie, per Go4â€™s opening salvo, a snide assault on the fragile privilege of ennui? Does it, like the Pistols, connect the pop-historical dots between Jacobinism and Jubilee-era Britpunk? Or does it, as the tagline would suggest, offer a reconsideration of the â€śLet them eat cakeâ€ť Queen of fatuous High School history as a royal revolutionary, shattering court protocol, sabotaging the outmoded social bathysphere she was born into, even as the exterior siege had begun?
The answer: all of that and none of the aboveâ€”you see, the movieâ€™s a veritable junk drawer of mismatched ideas. What it amounts to is a taxing two-hour parade of pretty pastries and Ms. Dunst collapsing backwardsâ€”â€ťLe sigh!â€ť â€”into frame, all with a depth of artistry and historical insight that lands it closer to Annie Lennoxâ€™s â€śWalking on Broken Glassâ€ť video than Stendhal. If there is a governing idea, itâ€™s establishing that Marie arrived at Versailles at an age when most of us are badly handling our first buzz in a friendâ€™s basement, wrenched from the womb of family into royal duty that knew no boundaries of privacyâ€”though, not to seem all sans culottes, but when our Princess suffers through taking her morning toilette before an audience of courtiers, itâ€™s worth remembering that plenty of her countrywomen were enduring the nightly racket of their parents fucking in their one-room hovel, among other mortifying indignities.
That the 18th century mayâ€™ve had ideas about privacy distinct from our own, that it regarded its adolescentsâ€”and its adolescents regarded themselvesâ€”differently than a contemporary teenager might; these are concepts that canâ€™t coexist with Coppolaâ€™s conflation of Marieâ€™s story with her own Cure-soundtracked youth (I imagine the young director-to-be, locked in her room: â€śOh my GOD dad, I am SO not watching Captain EO AGAIN!â€ť). And while thereâ€™s no doubt that Vienna and Versailles were worlds apart, would this new court really seem as extraterrestrial, even foreboding (see the elderly courtier out of Otto Dix, with ghastly spackled-on makeup) as Marieâ€™s initial point-of-view perceptions render it? Qâ€™orianka Kilcherâ€™s first impressions of England in The New World arenâ€™t half as discombobulated, but Malickâ€™s artistry was to create a historyâ€”however factually suspect and airyâ€”that was felt and lived-in; the anachronistic sacrilege of Marie Antoinette isnâ€™t that Coppola filters her iTunes into another century, A Knightâ€™s Tale-style, but that she never lets her cast and crew seem like more than out-of-time visitors on a palace tourâ€”at home they feel like tourists.
To back up a bit: One of the wealthiest, best-coddled women of the 18th century is portrayed by a wildly overpaid, sparsely talented actress who always delivers lines as though sheâ€™s auditioning (hearing it observed that Dunst looks a bit like Smashing Pumpkinsâ€™ front man Billy Corgan got closest to the heart of what puts me off about her), while her isolation-by-status is reiterated with filler shots that anybodyâ€™s kid brother could tell you convey loneliness (crumpled in the corner, in long-shot; zoom out on Marie alone, dwarfed by an epic colonnade), silly woe-is-me shorthand that betrays the filmâ€™s pretense to â€śellipticalâ€ť/â€śuseless beautyâ€ť/â€śfreeformâ€ť jazz, which is tenuous enough as it is. And can we all agree that a handheld shot following someone hanging their arm out of a moving vehicle, curving their palm through the air stream, should be retired as the official shot of freewheeling, â€śunfetteredâ€ť moviemaking?
Anyhow, it might be a little easier for me to accept Coppolaâ€™s empathy for her heroine if the realm of her understanding didnâ€™t feel so hemmed in by the borders separating character and caricature. Whereas Marie is offered to us as a hapless and naturally exuberant child sacrifice, a sweet, typically callow girl, essentially blameless for the historical circumstances that marked her life and her memory, her betrothed, Louis the XVIth (Coppola cousin Jason Schwartzman) rarely rises above being a figure of fun: sexually inept, more interested in homosocial hunting trips than ravishing his virgin bride, silently mocked in dead-air scenes that amplify his dainty chewing at the dinner table and his banal hobbiesâ€”the Prince has a passion for keys and locks, which Marieâ€™s brother (Danny Huston, also Hollywood aristocracyâ€”are you digging this syllogism yet?) will later call on to illustrate a birds-and-the-bees talk.
The real Louis was every bit the victim of circumstance that Marie wasâ€”thrust onto the throne at 19, morose and temperamentally unfit for the only job that life offered him, very possibly sexually retarded because of genital anomaly, overshadowed in life, as in death, by his wifeâ€”but for the purposes of this film heâ€™s essentially a punchline. Though Marie Antoinette implies that this Queen gave up everything that a woman could give for her subjects, Coppolaâ€™s film is filtered through adolescent narcissism: the world is divided between Self and the Rest, between Queen and courtiersâ€”when the mob arrives outside Versailles, they remain an underlit, indistinct menace pitted against individuality itself. The movie is loaded with interesting actorsâ€”Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Marianne Faithfull, Molly Shannon, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, even a few seconds of Mathieu Amalricâ€”but they rarely have anything to do other than supplement their Queenâ€™s moods. Coppola, an observant curator of other peopleâ€™s taste, casts all the right faces, just as she decorates her work with all the right songs; the problem is that she doesnâ€™t know how to use themâ€”nobodyâ€™s given room to interject individual life into their performance, and the filmmakingâ€™s too literal-minded to imagine that a picture called Marie Antoinette could be about anything beyond, say, Marie Antoinette.
The sole exception is Argento, a fierce actress and herself a second-generation auteur, whose Eurotrash royal mistress â€śMadameâ€ť du Barry racks all this hazy piffle into sharp focus; the role is another throwaway, meant for easy laughs and an abridged lesson in court protocol, but Argento takes it in her teeth with weaselly tenacity. Her last appearance, casting a baleful backwards glance at Versailles after sheâ€™s been banished by the newly ascendant Queen, smites away any memory of Dunstâ€”Argento knows she deserves this movie, that she goes after it with full-bodied insouciance, just as â€śMadameâ€ť du Barry goes after the crown.
Am I leaving anything out? Time passes, the Queen throws some great parties, flirts, gossips, smokes weed, has a fantasy shopping montage spree set to Bow Wow Wow, then gradually recedes into her Petit Trianon retreat, where sheâ€™s serenaded by her own personal quartet (the French band Phoenix; Coppolaâ€™s boyfriend is a member). From here we gallop through a historical panorama: the famous speech of Jacques-Louis David (Louis Garrel) before the National Assembly; the storming of the Bastille (scored to Heaven 17â€™s â€ś[We Donâ€™t Need This] Fascist Groove Thingâ€ť); Louisâ€™s visit to a strife-wracked Paris, where he meets with members of the Assembly (Wolf Eyes, Deerhoof, Junior Boys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, and Grizzly Bear); and the royal coupleâ€™s last-minute reprieve from execution by a returning King Richard II (a late-film cameo by Sir Sean Connery, wearing a Mighty Lemon Drops shirt), after which they move to Silver Lake and Marie learns to silkscreen her designs onto tee-shirts and Louis becomes a freelance graphic designer. I may have been making some of that up.
Of course, all this talk of Marie Antoinetteâ€™s murky intentions is really a front; like most people, I can forgive a lot for the sake of beauty, and most of my compunctions would amount to a quibbling paragraph if this movie had visually ravished me. But apart from Argento, a few nice shots of Louisâ€™s hunting hounds moving liquid-like over dewy grass, and the cueing up of a Strokes song so badly thought out that itâ€™s slightly bracing, there isnâ€™t much here to nourish the soul, film culture, or human understandingâ€”unless you went in anticipating that â€śYou just know the costumes are going to be cool,â€ť in which case thereâ€™s absolutely no way youâ€™ve negotiated this far in the review. The costumes are arresting, I should add, but Coppolaâ€™s lack of daring is despicable. An American filmmaker with any real guts would set their ode to the ruling class in the antebellum South. In summary, this movieâ€™s one of those side-by-side Shakespeare update/translations for developmentally challenged teens, where â€śOh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dewâ€ť becomes â€śWTF Iâ€™m depressed :( ".