Marie Antoinette is easily the most mysterious film I have seen of late. Not "mysterious" because of any plot intricacy or obscurantism, but because of its director's reticence in broadcasting her views and in maintaining any kind of distance from her subject. And make no mistake: Sofia Coppola does not so much as mount a biopic on the unfortunate Bourbon (neé Hapsburg) queen who came to symbolize popular hatred of France's ancien regime and was guillotined in 1792, as envelop her audience in a stylized experience of the hedonistic excess of the late-Bourbon court. Critical distance is not the point here, as Coppola simultaneously achieves a remarkable empathy for Antoinette and evokes the fishbowl-like quality of her existence, ever under the gaze (literally) of endless streams of court officials, hangers-on, and royals.
Within the fishbowl, life is hard for Antoinette, principally because her husband (Louis XVI, played with appropriate smooth-cheeked vapidity by Jason Schwartzman) is for years on end disinclined to consummate their marriage, as a result of which, as Antoinette's mother keeps reminding her, her position is perilous (an unconsummated marriage is grounds for annulment in Catholicism). Marie Antoinette's solace is things. Beautiful, lustrous, opulent, and incredibly expensive things. It is hard not read Coppola as obliquely critiquing the excesses of our own ultra-consumerist moment, when it seems that the pursuit and acquisition of material objects often seems to compensate for other -- and often unfillable -- voids. Yet part of Coppola's delicate reserve is in the manner in which she presents the excess (not so much thoughtless as a way to evade thought), but does not pass judgment on her ultimately likable central character. The mind is recoiled by a worldview according to which the size of one's coiffure or the material of one's dress is the most important consideration, yet the heart understands, and the eye is seduced.
The film is a marvel of visual intensity, and the contrast between the grainy, neo-documentary visual effect, and the outrageous opulence of the images, creates a cinematic signature that is singular, and compelling. And quirky -- which brings me to Kirsten Dunst. Although I have never been a fan, Dunst is superb here in the title role, with hardly a false note, and does what she is asked to do with a confidence beyond her years.
Ultimately, however, Marie Antoinette is a director's film through and through, and not for the first time Sofia Coppola reveals herself to be more "European" than "American" (if such crude generalizations may be forgiven) in her approach to film-making. Coppola's film has been criticized (most notably in France, where several viewers walked out during the film's screening at the Cannes film festival) for its reluctance to directly engage the political, yet I can only conclude that many of the film's critics have missed the point. Marie Antoinette does succeed in effacing the political for long stretches of the film, yet there is a truth in this effacement, mirroring as it does the désengagement of the Bourbon court from its subjects, a narcissism that to the hungry and restive multitudes came across as adding indifference to the burden of absolutism. The film shuns politics for the most part because Coppola sees the court itself as having done so, with disastrous results. As history, this narrative is hardly above critique, but as parable, it is potent enough. My reading is borne out by the fact that the last we see of Marie Antoinette is in her carriage, as she is being taken from Versailles after the storming of the Bastille; the farewell is fitting given this film's imagining of its protagonist as at the center of a court and of a way of life, through a glass case as it were. Away from those trappings, Marie Antoinette could be a suffering ex-monarch, perhaps a pathetic creature, but not the Marie Antoinette we have known through the film. The film's last image is of a ravaged room in Versailles: the spell is broken.
The nature of lives in the public eye is that they must be performed, not merely lived, and Coppola is acutely aware of this truism, lovingly chronicling, while also revealing the absurdity of, the unending rituals associated with the court. By film's end Marie Antoinette herself appears to have grasped this insight: one of the film's most memorable scenes is the Queen appearing in a balcony at Versailles, confronted with a violent mob, and the mere sight of her is enough to work the protestors into even more frenzy. The Queen's response? A theatrical, exaggerated bow, all but offering her head, that stuns the mob into silence. But the performance must end, Antoinette must stand up straight again, and the mob begins to jeer again: the spell is broken.