Kirsten Dunst as Marie-Antoinette
Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI
Judy Davis as Comtesse de Noailles
Rip Torn as King Louis XV
Rose Byrne as Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac
Asia Argento as Madame du Barry
Molly Shannon as Aunt Victoire
Shirley Henderson as Aunt Sophie
Danny Huston as Joseph II
Steve Coogan as Ambassadeur Mercy
Aurore Clément as Duchesse de Chartres
Jamie Dornan as Axel von Fersen
Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa
Guillaume Gallienne as Comte Vergennes
Mary Nighy as Princesse de Lamballe
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sometimes as vacant as it is extravagant, Coppola’s interpolation of the costume drama is an entertaining experiment that allows Kirsten Dunst to have the strongest role and performance of her career.
As a teen, Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is brought from Vienna to Versailles to marry the heir to the throne, Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), solidifying the bond between neighboring France and Austria. The young virginal couple become fodder for gossip because of their problems conceiving an heir, but when they become King and Queen of France at way too young an age, Marie starts throwing elaborate parties and spending money on shoes and wigs, much to the concern of the country who are facing deep poverty.
It may not take a master filmmaker to throw a bunch of actors into wigs and fancy vintage clothes and turn it into a costume drama, but it does take one to make it interesting beyond the masked balls and pageantry. That may be why when Sofia Coppola decided to adapt Antonia Fraser’s novel “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” into the type of period piece she might want to watch herself, she made what some might consider unconventional choices, like the soundtrack of late ’70s punk that kicks the movie off with the Gang of Four playing over titles that could have been designed by Malcolm McLaren himself.
I’ll be almost an hour before we get a taste for Coppola’s obsession with Bow Wow Wow, as the movie opens with an innocuous scene of the young Marie (Kirsten Dunst) being woken up and sent on a long carriage ride to France, where she’s thrust into the world of protocol and tradition that surrounds the royalty of Versailles. As a pact of allegiance, she’s married to young Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), an awkward and effeminate young man more interested in hunting and locks than his pretty new wife. The virgin Marie becomes frustrated with Louis’ lack of attention as she’s pressured by her mother and the gossip of the court to conceive an heir. Instead, she starts seeking solace in food and fashion, transforming herself into a society debutante, throwing lavish parties and having affairs with foreign soldiers. When Louis’ grandfather suddenly dies, the young couple find themselves thrust into power at far too young an age, and Marie spends even more time with her frivolous hobbies.
Those looking for an accurate historic epic of the famous French queen may be slightly disappointed by Coppola’s take, which tells the tale of a butterfly caught in the trappings of being French royalty until she learns to overcome them. Marie’s transformation is told through a number of clearly delineated sections, but the most shocking tone change occurs when without warning, Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” kicks in over a montage of Marie shopping and indulging with her ladies in waiting. It’s almost as if Coppola’s iPod suddenly got stuck on its “70s Punk” playlist, and though it’s jarring to see people dancing to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden” at a masked ball and hearing Joy Division accompanying Louis’ coronation as king, some of the songs do actually work well when used in a way closer to a John Hughes comedy than “A Knight’s Tale.” (An aside to The Strokes, you’re not a ’70s punk band.)
Coppola takes advantage of the film’s lavish shooting location inside the actual Versailles, but underneath all of the gratuitous fun, one can find some depth like with the pointed jab at the gossip tablois, when they start putting words like “Let them eat cake” in the Queen’s mouth. Despite the occasional cleverness, the movie tends to get bogged down in ongoing subplots like Louis and Marie’s comical inability to consummate their marriage. Like with “Lost in Translation,” Copolla tends to rely more on visuals than words, and often, she’s guilty of Terrence Malick levels of ignoring storytelling to show beautiful scenes of Dunst languishing in the grass, sheerly for the sake of a nice shot.
However you look at it, “Marie Antoinette” really is Sofia Coppola’s generous gift to Kirsten Dunst, reuniting the duo after Dunst appeared in Coppola’s debut “The Virgin Suicides.” Dunst is as perfect for the role of Marie Antoinette, as it is for her, and she does an exquisite job delivering on the many facets of the role with a performance that’s charming at times and tragic at others. Coppola always has a way of making actresses look stunning on screen, and this is no exception.
Coppola’s unconventional decisions include having Jason Schwartzman decked out as the famous French king, but he’s hysterical as he delivers even the most mundane line as if he were Max in “Rushmore” putting on a play about 18th Century France. The brilliant casting also lets Rip Torn have fun as the philandering French king, cavorting with his catty mistress, played by Asia Argento. Coppola plucks Steve Coogan and Shirley Henderson right from the set of Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy,” unintentionally reminding us of that movie’s more inventive deconstruction of period dramas. Other nice touches include Judy Davis as the head of the household and the perfectly cast Marianne Faithfull as Marie’s mother, the Queen of Austria.
The last half hour of the film gets a bit more serious, as Marie has gotten the parties and affairs out of her system and begins to deal with family matters and affairs of state. By then, the media has already turned the people of France against her, blaming her frivolous shopping for the country’s poverty, and in a shocking finale, Marie and Louis hide away in Versailles trying to pretend everything is normal as an angry torch-bearing mob gather outside. It’s a powerful ending that drives home the analogy of how fame and stardom may be fleeting, though it’s doubtful that either Coppola or Dunst should be worried about that sort of backlash just yet.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of the costume drama genre probably won’t be disappointed by the lavish costumes and extravagant Versailles setting in Coppola’s unique spin on it. Even when Coppola gets a bit frivolous with the source material, she never loses sight of trying to make it a fun and entertaining romp that showcases all of Dunst’s charm and personality.