Girls just wanna have fun
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - November 3, 2006 - 12:00am
Of the intricate rituals and customary acts of baroque mundanity, Marie Antoinette says, "This is ridiculous." The curtsies and the hierarchies of the Bourbon court in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette are too much, too soon, too restrictive for a 14-year-old girl, one that would much rather have her cake and eat it, too, without much consideration for decapitated circumstance.

"This, Madame, is Versailles." The retort is succinct and condescending, pronounced with the self-imposition of superiority by a snippy Judy Davis as the Comtesse de Noailles. Marie, an Austrian import set to wed 15-year-old dauphin Louis XVI in a validation of the Franco-Austrian alliance, is an unwelcome addition to the palace, and up till the savage end to her reign as queen she will always remain an outsider. Marie is antagonized by the very place that envelops her in a secure and protective bubble of ignorance: about the austere conditions beyond the palace topiaries, about her purpose as the queen of a troubled nation, about her misguided penchant for shoes and booze and couture and cake. Of course, Marie was particularly dim-witted herself; how could you expect her, a silly child, to govern?

Denizens of Versailles gossip about her inability to conceive an heir, even though Louis’ concupiscent shortcomings are to be blamed for leaving the marriage unconsummated for years; Marie remains the spendthrift poster child for the demons of extravagance the French Revolution sought to expunge, though it was Louis’ corrupt state policy and overspending for France’s allies that led to the poverty of the people. The implication is that Marie Antoinette is misunderstood, a naïve, innocent, confused child victimized by history’s propagandistic disposition to justify unsubstantiated bias. Pining this angle is far from revolutionary, at least from a historian’s pen: Coppola based her screenplay on Antonia Fraser’s splendid revisionist biography of the young queen, though seeking empathy –based on cold fact devoid of the lenient flourish of sentiment – to counteract overwhelming revulsion for a historical figure has been attempted by academia before.

Coppola does not aspire for historical accuracy or the motions of a conventional biopic, which is probably why the French booed it out of Cannes; Marie Antoinette is the past interpreted by an artist resolved to ground herself in the present. Coppola claims ownership of Marie and her story, flirting with parallels to her own sheltered, privileged upbringing as Hollywood royalty: ‘80s post-punk and new wave blares as Marie frolics through the Hall of Mirrors wearing high-top Chucks, signaling its apposition to the Coppola household circa 1986. Anachronism, in this case, is a tool for branding possession; consequently Coppola is adopting French history as her own. If this constitutes disrespect (and I suppose it does), this is perfectly warranted (I, of course, am not French): Marie Antoinette is so far the most artistically daring and innovative film of the year, a gorgeous masterpiece by the most polarizing filmmaker of her generation taking on the most reviled and revered woman in history; it’s a refreshing little revolution masquerading as a confectionary trifle.

There is little mention of the poverty and collective grumblings outside the walls of Versailles: the series of events we are all familiar with–the storming of the Bastille, and then of Versailles; the royal couple’s imprisonment and beheading – are viewed through a fatalistic, if wholly clueless aperture. This is history based on perception and not fact: the film is almost told through Marie’s first-person consciousness; we are made to adapt to her ignorance and unawareness, insulated by the thunderous hearsay – whispers of the court and reverie of the Versailles nightlife. A girl obliged to party and have fun and be promiscuous has no necessity for the complications of affairs of the state. This is not antifeminism but the unabashed celebration of teenage indifference and self-absorption. Coppola even decidedly omits Marie’s infamous beheading, allowing the credits to roll as soon as she is forced out of Versailles; her life, one of luxury and opulence and debauchery, had already ended then.

Engrave Milena Canonero’s name onto her costume design Oscar already: taffeta and silk combust onscreen as the sumptuous fashion of the court are sent down the runway; it is, as in The Devil Wears Prada, sartorial porn unseen in cinema for years. Longtime Coppola collaborator Lance Acord shoots Versailles with an eye of sanguine wonder that shifts from passivity to intimacy with the jolt of thrilling, youthful temperament. Naturally, the sunlight-through-leaves shot requisite in any Sofia Coppola film is present.

As Gang of Four sings to open the film, "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure." The hedonism and decadence of Versailles was not driven by the need for money but the search for the life of pleasure that money brought. Kirsten Dunst gives the performance of her career as Marie; she speaks as a SoCal valley girl frustrated with the pressures of relationships and mean girls, fully realizing the Queen as just another teenager coping with the trappings of being used as a pawn in the solidification of an international alliance. Coppola using Dunst’s portrayal to identify her own childhood with Marie’s is an act of sheer audacity and heedless vanity; it is laudable how witty and entertaining the results are. Her hipster-auteurist posturing has never felt more vital and justifiable.

She strays from declaring Marie Antoinette as revisionist history because the debatable historical inaccuracies are beside of the point of conceit. Instead Coppola decides to overhaul the fundamental and stubbornly unimpeachable principles of the period piece, the stodgy and stuffy precepts of the costume drama: she brings together the past and the present to create an electric urgency that defies the constraints of time, boldly striving for the revisionism of an entire genre. Sofia Coppola is an artist, not a historian, and she never forgets that; Marie Antoinette is her bold gesture in concluding her trilogy of girlhood, an incredibly lavish and modern exploration of the teenage psyche that is also one of the greatest teen films ever made.

Grade: A
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