Monday, August 17, 2009

Defensive Cinema #5: Marie Antoinette (2006)


Defensive Cinema is a series devoted to films seemingly dismissed by the greater population. And me getting all defensive like and telling you why my opinions hold more water than yours.


"I want to be forgotten,
and I don't want to be reminded."

'What Ever Happened' - The Strokes


The youthful girls of Sofia Coppola's films simultaneously try to escape and thrive in their environments. The Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides laze about in hazy daydreams set to records steeped in longing as they pray for saviors to a stifling homelife. Charlotte of Lost In Translation plans a literal escape attempt while forging a connection that could sustain her through an overcrowded isolation. Coppola successfully finds a similar side to Marie Antoinette. We witness a child thrust into a political power position at its most lavish. Instant pleasure everywhere but in her arranged marriage.


"The problem of leisure...
What to do for pleasure?"

'Natural's Not In It' - Gang of Four


A marriage to a king who would rather make keys than an heir is a good starting point. Marie's pregnancy alone is held as a point of uniting families and countries. If she can't conceive of a male child to carry on the legacy, she's failed as a woman and someone of her high position. And yet we remember her best throughout history for, "Let them eat cake." Good comedic timing was clearly one of Marie Antoinette's best features, to compliment her stylish boots and hairstyles that would cripple a woman of weaker pedigree.


Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) has a celebrity experience not dissimilar to those of current times: a breakthrough ingenue with an adoring public, but give it some time and she's lucky to be harassed by a torch-wielding mob. Here a historically maligned woman is given second glance at the level of humanity that floods all of Coppola's work. Her portrait is sympathetic, loose of the historical staples, free in form and function. Her films dissolve into maturity as they progress, much like the females at their center, and gain unexpected emotional weight given their ethereal atmospherics at times. Amidst all that costumed drama, Coppola defies labels and tone in order to make a biopic of real value. It's one thing to tread a historical timeline and define a figure through their era, it's another thing to have their purpose really reflect modern dilemmas. She finds the soul in someone skewed by history as not having one.


"Rousseau says, 'If we assume man has been corrupted by an artificial civilization, what is the natural state? The state of nature from which he has been removed? Imagine wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech and without home.'"

Decadence becomes Marie's temporary satisfaction and means of escape, and she distracts herself with the childish gossip that stretches the vast hallways of Versailles. But as she grows and evolves, so does the film. Once Marie finally fulfills her role of baring children, she's then condemned for living amidst the very luxury she'd been ritualistically forced into. The ravishing work of Coppola, cinematographer Lance Acord and costume designer Milena Canonero, has a poignantly subtle way of placing Marie at odds with her environment -- always the center of focus but almost indiscernible from her surroundings. In an attempt to blend into her world, she's consumed by it.




Marie's eventual end doesn't leave us with the bitterness of her real-life beheading, instead her withdrawal into nature and a solemn acceptance of her fate. She sacrificially bows to her public and fades into the sunset. It's a period-piece at its most feeling and playful. Anachronistic, without dialects, opulent and detailed -- yet not particularly interested in the details. It's especially refreshing when we consider films like Milk, Ray, La Vie en Rose, or any number of biopics that stick to a base formula, and see that Coppola's take is far more adventurous and far less defining. Marie Antoinette isn't manufactured here as a hero, villain or tragic figure, even if Coppola finds each of those beats quite effortlessly. History has already labeled her, so it's Coppola's job to uphold those tags, challenge them and toss them aside completely.


In keeping with her own burgeoning legacy, Coppola compiles another soundtrack fit for a queen. It's unusual for a film set in royal Versailles, but it takes to Marie's emotions with dreamlike ease and killer beats. From partying to prose, it features intoxicating tunes from the likes of New Order, The Cure, The Radio Dept. and Bow Wow Wow. Shoe-gazer music for literally gazing at shoes -- really extravagant shoes.

If Marie Antoinette was a product of her time, her surroundings and her stylist, Sofia Coppola aims to re-brand her. In a celebrity culture, anything can so easily be taken out of context. If Marie Antoinette really said with such sly disregard, "Let them eat cake," Coppola gives us time to digest that beyond simple condemnation. Lucky for us it's elegant, layered and entirely fulfilling. Coppola has her cake and we eat it, too.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well said! I've been defending my love for this movie since I walked out of the theatre.

Popcorn and Cigarettes said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I felt this movie was unfairly judged when it came out. It was absolutely one of my favourites from 2006. I cannot think of too many film that deserve a Defensive Cinema post over Marie Antoinette.

Encore Entertainment said...

I don't love it, but I don't hate it. It's a fine film, I never really understood the hate. I should probably watch it again though...your post made me want to.

Luigi De Angelis S. said...

Adam,

I love this film. To me it is a fresh, original and incredibly biopic.

I usually have a hard time with biopics (I often find them quite boring), but in this case I think that Sofia Coppola did a great job bringing us a story in which the historical character is presented as a human being, from an interesting point of view (I mean, Sofia exhibits Marie Antoinette as a hot celebrity, a party girl... I don't know, I found it really fascinating).

Well... congratulations for this beautiful series.

Bye