November 01, 2006
Poor Marie Antoinette — they just can't seem to capture her on film or in the theater. Even the books written about her seem unable to link us to the person behind the legend. When the bio/epic from the Golden Age of Hollywood opened in 1938, Dorothy Parker thought it was like watching Marie Antoinette appear as Norma Shearer.
The French tried their own 1950s version starring their superstar, Michelle Morgan, but it was as flat as a waxworks exhibit. The French have a wonderful expression: "Tableau Vivante." It means, "living pictures." Most biographical works, attempting to portray history's greats, suffer from this kind of thing. They capture an image of the subject, but not the true spirit of person who, when alive, created a slot for themselves for the ages.
Marie Antoinette's life beckons to us across two and a half centuries because it's a case of Greek Tragedy turned into reality. She went from the giddiest of heights to the darkest of depths and ultimately died a grisly public death, which she met with unexpected courage — even spirituality. Her most serious detractors, then and now, admit she died like a heroine.
Sofia Coppola is the latest to take a shot at bringing Marie Antoinette to the screen. Her film is, in many ways, amazing — and though it has its flaws, it's definitely worth seeing.
Kirsten Dunst takes on the title role and she's most effective as the young Austrian Archduchess and pre-maternal queen. As you would expect, the costumes are pretty wonderful, the Palace of Versailles and its jewel box outpost called Le Petit Trianon, come wonderfully alive with candlelight and food and bewigged extras.
When you're there as a tourist, you only see the dinosaur bones of the Ancient Regime; you don't get a sense of the real thing "fleshed-out," as it were. Many designers consider the interiors of the Louis XVI style to be the most beautiful rooms ever conceived, and they are a feast for the eyes. The sheer beauty of the surroundings attests to the seduction of excessive luxury that Marie Antoinette and her set were subject to.
Jason Schwartzman is cast as her hapless husband and ineffectual king. One keeps thinking that if the real Louis XVI looked like Jason, the marriage would have been consummated a lot sooner than seven years. What this film does portray is the tender affection the two had for each other despite their totally different temperaments. The view of Madame DuBarry is faulty: she was not the boorish prostitute in flashy red dresses shown here and other depictions. It's the easy way out to make her as unpleasant to the audience as she was to Marie Antoinette. In fact, MA was the bratty little snit to a woman who was only trying to hold her own in a court that hated her as much as Louis XVI loved her.
Had the young Antoinette been a bit more sophisticated, she and La DuBarry could have found strength in each other's company. Though this was her first snubbing at court, it would not be her last. One has to believe the real Marie Antoinette had an unfortunate knack for alienating just about everyone with the exception of a small coterie of personal friends. This is, in great part, what left her standing so alone when the winds of revolution began to blow.
No sense of the average French Citizen of that period is evident in the film. Only a glimpse of the mob that marched to Versailles demanding bread is shown near the end. And there's no ride in a tumbrel to the guillotine. The last we see of the doomed queen is her staring across the palace grounds from the carriage that would bring her to Paris and increasingly severe imprisonment. "I'm saying goodbye" are her last words here — and it's enough. There's even a gay character: Monsieur Leonard, the first celebrity hairdresser, is shown creating one of those towering "do's." Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.