ORCHESTRATING MOOD AND EMOTION like a piece of music, whether by Bow Wow Wow or Jean-Philippe Rameau.
As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, cinema is not a slice of life but a slice of cake. I can’t imagine a less Hitchcockian film than Marie Antoinette, but Sofia Coppola seems to have grasped that principle. Her film doesn’t take a chunk of history and serve it up neatly with dates, names, interpretations, and conclusions. It tries to do what films do best, to tantalize the senses with ephemeral beauty and superficial delights.
Are they just empty calories? Coppola’s cake acts like Proust’s Madeleine, or like the jasmine petal that, when Marie (Kirsten Dunst) drops it into water, expands into a blossom. Rather than bludgeon you with a traditional verbal narrative, the film touches lightly on the past, evokes associations with the present, and orchestrates mood and emotion like a tone poem or a piece of music, whether by Bow Wow Wow or Jean-Philippe Rameau.
When it opens with its first cliché, Marie surrounded by towering layer cakes of shimmering pinkness, the film looks as if it might turn out to be as crass and empty-headed as the cover stories in Vogue and the New York Times travel magazine portended. Instead, like a later shot of Marie uttering the infamous and apocryphal “Let them eat cake,” the image proves a tease. Coppola doesn’t slavishly paraphrase her source, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey, but she doesn’t deviate from it either.
That story, though distorted by myths, is familiar. At age 12, Marie Antoinette is shipped from Vienna to Paris by her mother, Empress Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithfull!), to marry the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) and so link the two realms. At first she’s embraced by the court with tempered enthusiasm (“She’s delightful! Like a little piece of cake!”), but as gossip and intrigue curdle and Louis proves inadequate in siring an heir, her fortunes take a turn, a direction she does little to counter by seeking solace in a montage of cards, frivolous company, extravagant spending, and, ultimately, a lover. (“I Love Candy” on the soundtrack shouldn’t work, but it does.) Then there are those starving peasants, and the growing cost of the American Revolution to consider . . .
All this is filtered through Marie’s consciousness, and Dunst captures the queen’s passing moods with radiance and conviction. She’s not the brightest bulb on the Habsburg tree, and for much of the film she’s much like any iPodded, credit-card-bearing American teen of today, largely sealed off from the history collapsing around her by the rites and gilding of her little world. Fragments of venomous conversation murmured in the background bode scandal and doom, but the evanescent, superbly photographed beauties of Versailles, St. Cloud, and Le Petit Trianon hover like a childish and melancholy dream.
Louis eventually rises to the task and children are born, their growth and demise marking the passage of time. (One subtle touch: a portrait of Marie with three children removed and replaced with one child painted out.) The revolution too has grown apace, but by the time the sans culottes have stormed the gates of Versailles, Marie has matured as well. When she greets her fate with dignity and courage, you believe her. Her weakness and folly were like our own, but she found the strength and clarity to become a queen.