marie antoinette (2006)
Since the 1970's, the name Coppola has been attached to some stunning motion pictures. The elder Coppola, Francis Ford, along with pals George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, helped to establish a new era in filmmaking throughout the 70's and directed some of the most renowned films ever made. How fitting it is, then, that Sofia, the younger of the two, would be following in her father's footsteps and doing the very same thing here in the 21st century. For myself, she is at the forefront of modern directors that are really advancing the medium of film while so many others allow it to stagnate. Her newest film, Marie Antoinette, is only the second movie I've seen from her (in fact it's only the third she's ever directed), but the other just happens to be my favorite film of this decade so far, Lost in Translation. Coppola brings a sensibility and style to her films that allow them to almost develop on their own as they walk the delicate line of absolutely perfect timing. By not forcing a classic plot on her films or characters, her direction is akin to a tightrope walker without a net. If, even for a moment, she would lose her inventive tone and stylistic finesse, her films might instantly plunge into senseless plodding, or worse still, boredom. Marie Antoinette is a perfect example of this fantastic direction, and also, it's one of the year's best films.
One of the more remarkable things about the picture is that it gets Coppola out of the very tight fix of having to follow up early-career critical success with another hit. Instead of going for something that would be obvious Oscar bait, in hopes of once again being nominated for best picture and really wowing mainstream critics, she just seems to be making her next movie as she would have made it anyhow. She appears unphased by her success and is simply ready to give us another tale of a girl displaced. She is also able to once again give us her under-the-radar humor is an added bonus. In fact, she's pretty much free to continue her career in any way she chooses now, as this film has been wholly rejected by both audiences and most critics alike as being superfluous and boring. Coppola is now free from expectation. That they are unable to discern any substance whatsoever from this gem is yet another testament to their backwards attitude toward film this year: it's not the first time they've been wrong, and as I catch up on the last few films of this year, I doubt it will be the last. (of course, the still-recovering Roger Ebert is exempt from this generalization as he recently awarded the film four stars out of four, which may be giving the picture even too much credit but how can I argue?) Anyhow, Marie Antoinette chronicles the life of France's most notoriously bad queen through her appointment and eventual downfall at the hands of the French bourgeoisie. What makes the film brilliant where it could have been just another biopic movie is that Coppola decides to put a modern spin on the tale by making Antoinette a bit like a 21st Century teenage girl. Then again, she's also, quite definitely, an 18th century girl as well. This would be where the tightrope walker analogy comes in. There is never a line drawn between where the 18th century world ends and the modern sensibilities with which the story is told end, if Coppola were to stray too far in either direction the film would have lost what made it special in the first place. It can never be too much like modern day or it would spoil the film, making it far too goofy to go on, but it can never stray too far into normal 18th century life or it would become another in the long line or costume dramas and period pieces that have been introducing audiences to the back of their eyelids for decades. For example, a scene in which Antoinette and her other princess friends decide to sneak out of the palace for the night and go clubbing --- I mean, go to the Masquerade Ball. Yes, they show up at another palace wearing their extravagant dresses, their ridiculous white wigs and their black eyemasks, but the Ball plays a mix of 80's pop songs and I swear I saw a disco ball. It's never made clear wether or not the characters can hear this 80's music, and that's the magic of the film in a nutshell. The pop song soundtrack is another key to Coppola's directorial success as she cuts them in at any moment she pleases; she directs the film in the mindset a bored teenager, throwing on her headphones and playing some music for us during the boring parts. It's this full embodiment by every aspect of the film to think like the Antoinette character that make the whole swirling opera of events flow out like smooth jazz.
It's a great approach to a story from the past that's hardly done, but usually effective. I'm not quite sure why it isn't attempted more often, I mean it's about time that a film had the guts to admit that it's impossible not to filter the time period it's depicting through modern eyes anyway, why don't we stop pretending we know exactly how French kings and queens spoke to eachother in the 1700's? It's alot like Altman's 70's masterpiece McCabe and Mrs. Miller in this respect, as it makes no attempt to hide the fact that it's not being made in the era in which it's set. Usually a period piece wants to transport us into a world of the past, so that wen pretend for two hours that we're hanging out with Marie Antoinette at Versailles. By making its characters a bit more like us, we're brought closer to understanding them than ever before. The cinematography in the film is top-notch stuff. Not only are the vast wide-shots of the palace, it's enormous staircase and the its endless halls great to look at, but Coppola employs a deep rich color palate that makes for some great sequences, even if all we're watching Antoinette do is pick out new shoes. The outdoor shots at Marie's retreat outdo them, however, as Coppola places her camera right down in the tall grasses to catch her characters in small, personal moments that most films would easily ignore. Especially noteworthy are the scenes surrounding Antoinette's 19th birthday, as she and her friends stay up until dawn and go out into the palace fields to watch the sun rise. The film's frames evoke that sense pitch perfectly, and it may have been my favorite scene in the film. What modern twenty year old isn't immediately able to connect with exactly what she is feeling at that moment, we've all been there, maybe not as royalty in a palace, but that's why the film works toward transcending Antoinette's circumstances to make her seem just like anyone else. Again, it's fantastic. The film's music is a light blend of the pop songs I mentioned before and stuffy, yet humorous, victorian era symphony numbers. They provide the perfect mood for exposing the ridiculously proper European royalty in some of the film's more hilarious scenes in the palace. The soundtrack, as in Lost in Translation, is quite a high point. The acting is very good all around, especially Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI. He plays the character as beyond bumbling, a quiet naive young man, who in the modern world would most likely play Dungeons and Dragons and watch anime. He is utterly clueless when it comes to what to do with his new wife, and he'd rather spend time with his hobby ... making keys. Their scenes together are some of the film's funniest, and the lighthearted attitude with which their approached makes them all the better. Dunst does a very nice job, as does Rip Torn as the King. However, in this film, even the actors are, more or less, just pieces of scenery in the tapestry that Coppola is weaving. It all comes together in fine form to make a fantastic film.