Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

As nontraditional as Coppola’s story structure is here - one could suggest that Marie’s effort to get pregnant comprises an entire act of the film, which takes well over half of the running time (in fairness, this is eight years of biographical time; Coppola then races through a further dozen at a comparatively breakneck speed) - there are many touches a more rigid screenwriter could learn from, not the least of which is detailing characters and relationships through seconds-long interactions about matters having nothing to do with the plot at all. She sketches Louis and Marie’s relationship especially in rather remarkable turns, beautifully portraying an awkward acquaintanceship that becomes a rather touching partnership with any sexual or romantic component virtually nonexistent, without suggesting their relationship is lesser for having lacked it. This courtesy is extended further to a robust supporting cast, the characters of which are shown to be duplicitous and conniving without the need to render obtuse mini-plots against our heroine.

Further, Marie herself remains something of an enigma, instantly garnering our sympathy through her outsider status in one of history’s most ostentatious cultures, then gradually becoming subsumed by and coming to define that very element which so previously flummoxed her. She cannot secure her position by pregnancy, but her social capacity is tremendous, and she leverages that quickly to her advantage. This remains Dunst’s finest hour onscreen, the role that indulges everything that makes her so compelling from one of the few filmmakers who have understood just how interesting she is to look at. Much was made at the time of Coppola’s indulgence to Dunst’s beauty and the endless shots of her lying around listlessly, but, well, it’s good cinema, dammit. Her ordinarily-awkward line readings serve a purpose to underscore her character’s discomfort with her position, and Dunst’s most natural performative style at the time - flirtatious, self-assured, conciliatory - are very much in her favor her, spiced up with a sort of oblivious selfishness as Marie gets further entrenched in Versailles.

This and Elizabethtown were, in retrospect, arguably the peak of the pop-music-as-score movement that was so hot in the 90s, as cinema became an outlet into which directors could wield their music supervisors as ultimate evidence of their own cool. The trend had been virtually unstoppable (to the point that many film students such as myself found it difficult to conceptualize making our own without some sort of needle drop), but would peter out over the years following. I know there were many at the time who felt it more than wore out its welcome here, and while there are a few scenes that I think would play better with the music a little softer or removed altogether, I think this aspect of the film holds up exceptionally well. In part this is because Coppola restricts her choices to just their instrumental portions for much of the beginning of the film, then really lets it explode to coincide with Marie’s escalating lifestyle, then starts to drop it back down again once shit gets real with the whole French Revolution thing going on.

And speaking of THAT…when this film came out, I knew virtually nothing about the Revolution, and had seen maybe five French films in my life. Now, ten years later, I’ve actually been to Versailles, invested far too much of my life in French cinema, learned a little French, and am gradually (okay, very gradually) working through a podcast series about the Revolution. The movie might play differently had I not seen it so many times before all this came to pass, but I actually found its relationship to history and culture MORE affecting. By filming in Versailles, Coppola and her cast are directly contending with the history they represent. Much of Versailles has been either preserved or completely reconstructed, but there’s still a sense of age around everything, a feeling that, through this film, Marie is revisiting her own past and anticipating her eventual future by even walking around.

One of the film’s best qualities is that it feels intensely researched and completely taken for granted all at once; the way the characters live blindly through a major shift in history without a care in the world, so too does the cast and crew frolic around what is essentially a museum as though it were an actual home. This is not to say that Coppola disrespected the history she was representing (though much of the press at the time, especially at Cannes, suggested just that). She’s actually quite canny with the way she uses the palace - for example, often when Marie is forced to confront her responsibility to a country she barely knows, Dunst is seen walking down the Stone Gallery, a section dedicated to famous figures in French history, many of which might be as foreign to Marie as they are now to us. And Coppola, to her eternal credit, finds something genuine in Marie’s country estate, which in real life looks more like a Disneyland version of a farm than any actual farm that has ever existed. There’s this constant push-pull of various needs for the castle - the film’s need for Versailles as a living place, its actual existence as a museum and the need to preserve that, and the fact that it was in many ways already a museum by the time Marie arrived, all of which collides and interacts in surprisingly stimulating ways. In all these endless ceremonies, the cast is playing people who are playing at certain roles, and by situating a modern cast using mostly their genuine accents (an actual French accent, let alone French dialogue, is quite rare) into this space, they are further calling attention to how much of their characters’ behaviors, too, was affected.

So, you know, in this context, the stray Converse sneaker makes a whole lot of sense.

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