Marie Antoinette has gone down in history as the French queen who, hearing that her subjects were a little short on bread (okay, they were starving), said, "Let them eat cake." But maybe she's gotten a bum rap. Not that the doomed monarch was Mother Teresa or anything, caring for the poor while living in squalor. But maybe living in Versailles wasn't all it was cut out to be. Maybe Marie Antoinette shopped till her head dropped, partied like it was 1789, because she was trapped in one of the most elaborately gilded cages of all time. Maybe she wouldn't have moved to France - a 14-year-old Austrian girl expected to produce an heir to the French throne - if it had been left up to her. Maybe she would have stayed in Vienna and eaten strudel all day. Heck, maybe she didn't even utter that quip about letting them eat cake.
That's the thinking behind Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a movie that manages to be both tantalizing and tranquilizing, often at the same time. Coppola, who keeps making movies about princesses holed up in their castles (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation), based this one on Lady Antonia Fraser's sympathetic biography, which sees Marie Antoinette as a poor little rich girl who, using clothes - lots and lots of clothes - as her currency, bought herself some actual influence. That's not exactly a feminist theme, but it isn't exactly an unfeminist theme, either. And Coppola rides it to the end, immersing us in a world so decadently extravagant that we're at first delighted to be there, then slightly sickened. Marie Antoinette doesn't just let us eat cake, it stuffs it down our throats for two straight hours.
But what cake! Think of a Fragonard painting, only frillier - dresses that look like spun-sugar confections, carriages that look like the one Cinderella took to the ball (complete with plumed horses), rooms so richly ornate, in that Louis XIV style, that you can't imagine actually living in them. And, of course, the desserts. To keep our minds off the flour shortage that the rest of France was going through, Coppola has assembled a bewildering display of bonbons, petit fours, meringues and marzipan. In fact, the movie opens with a glimpse of Kirsten Dunst's Marie lolling on a chaise, her arm summoning up just enough energy to run a finger through the pink icing of a delicious-looking three-tiered gateau. Her gaze directed toward the camera, she smiles wanly, as if to acknowledge how much that bite of frosting will cost her.
She'd been paying from the beginning. The movie proper opens with the Austro-Hungarian princess crossing the border into France, where she undergoes "la remise," a literal stripping away of her Austrian past. And Coppola stages it like a Kabuki play starring Paris Hilton, the solemnity of the occasion undermined slightly by the teenager's lack of social graces. Later, the newest addition to the French court will question why she must begin each day with the Morning Dressing Ceremony, wherein various ladies-in-waiting vie for the privilege of putting her clothes on for her. "This is ridiculous," she says, laughing. "This, Madame, is Versailles," says the Emily Post of the ancien régime (Judy Davis), a comtesse with a stick so far up her ass it's affecting the way she talks. Despite its tragic underpinnings, Marie Antoinette works quite well as a comedy.
And there's nobody quite as amusing as Louis XVI, the next and, as it turns out, last king of France. As played by Jason Schwartzman, who appears to have prepared for the role by spending a month in a sensory-deprivation tank, Louis XVI inhabits a world all his own - a classic twerp who just happens to have royal blood flowing through his veins. And Schwartzman isn't afraid to totally nerd out, take the portrayal to uncomfortably awkward places. Born to breed, Marie can't turn the dauphin into a suitable sperm donor, which threatens both her own future and that of France. So she does what many frustrated wives would do in that situation: She parties. Boy, does she party. Coppola clearly wants us to see the connection between the all-night bashes of yesteryear and the all-night bashes of today, le rêve and the rave.
Toward what end? Maybe so we'll see Marie Antoinette as someone like ourselves instead of someone stuffed into a history book. All the major characters are touchingly, disappointingly human. Even the king, given a hearty American accent by Rip Torn, is but a lecherous old fart content to wile away his days and nights pawing on Madame du Barry (Asia Argento) while the cast of Les Misérables gathers outside the Bastille. Coppola doesn't know quite what to do when politics, having been kept at bay for so long, suddenly rears its ugly head. Life inside the bubble has left everybody a little bubble-headed, and it's left us a little bubble-headed as well. In fact, only the newly mature Marie - wife, mother, queen, her tasks completed, the costume party finally over - keeps her head while all those around her are losing theirs.
Then she, too...
But Coppola fades to black before the blade drops, Marie taking one last wistful look at Versailles while being whisked off in a carriage yet again. That it's the actual Versailles, and has been all along, certainly contributes to the movie's reality effect, but it also contributes to the dream effect. As does Dunst's easy-to-dismiss performance. Of course, she looks simply smashing in all those get-ups, her creamy skin and silken hair staking their own claims to the throne. But her assignment involved much more than looking good. She had to take us inside a woman who may not have had much going on inside, a woman we'd all like to know more about but never will. Most of the time, her Marie seems slightly zonked out, as does the movie itself. But there's little doubt that this is the exact tone Coppola was going for - life as a long, magnificent hangover.