Sofia Coppola broke onto the film scene with a success her first time out. The Virgin Suicides (1999), a devastating look at repression in 1970’s suburbia, has glorious visuals, Kirsten Dunst’s great lead role, and a story obsessed with mood and environment.
Her second film, Lost in Translation (2003), a completely disappointing sophomore effort, rejects a coherent narrative for whimsical banter. I was certainly in the minority when it came out, the film universally loved by critics and art-house fans alike. However, I found it whiney, tedious, an altogether juvenile story. While showcasing Bill Murray’s standout performance, the film suffers from Scarlet Johansson’s Charlotte, a lackadaisical soul looking for comfort in all the right places, a boring rich girl discontent with her place in life, even though she has had the FREEDOM OF CHOICE the entire way. In short, her character doesn’t have tension, conflict maybe, deep inner conflict, but no tension within the world she resides. I’m getting this all out of the way because it’s important to lay out a foundation, a place to start in discussing Coppola’s new film,
Marie Antoinette, which falls deeply in line with the motifs and themes of her other work.Marie Antoinette follows the young Austrian princess (Dunst again – thank God), married off to a disinterested Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), all living exuberantly at the palace of Versailles as unseen revolt and later revolution brew in the streets of Paris. Coppola’s beautiful, deeply sad film, deals strictly with Marie’s life at Versailles; the parties, the traditions, the plays, the walks in the sun, the hunts in the woods, the gossip, the intimate moments with her husband, life of the palace, all countered with the numerous wide shots of the Queen by herself. Solitude vs. society.
The opening scenes show Marie basking in the attention of the court, unaware of the societal rules she now must abide by. As she realizes the pitfalls and limitations of her power, happiness and growth depending on producing an heir to the throne, her joy subsides with brutal clarity. The film, itself a mature meditation on loneliness and heartache, doesn’t judge these characters who have been vilified by history. Coppola attempts to give the story weight through moments of silence, peaceful gaps in history, giving a better sense of character and motivation while deeply rooted in historical accuracy.Style and substance often collide in Marie Antoinette, producing fascinating results.
Using a keen mixture of classical and 80’s pop music and creative camera movement, Coppola amplifies your senses to mise-en-scene, showing dynamic juxtaposition’s of sound and image. The attention to detail is astonishing (as it should be – the film was mostly shot at Versailles), each room filled with texture layered upon texture, a collection of jewels, clothes, interiors, and exteriors which demand to be seen on the big screen.
All of this style leads to Coppola’s real achievement – creating a character (large part due to Dunst’s amazing performance) who has been thrust into a repressive environment, and much like the Lisbon sisters of Suicides, understands the affect of her misery, but finds the courage to rebel against it anyways. Marie’s will to live becomes institutionalized, her growth stunted by repetition, lineage, and hierarchy.
She yearns to live, finding sex, gambling, food as her windows out, creating a film space filled with tension, little moments adding up to a recollection of failed attempts at individuality. What separates Marie and the Lisbon sisters from Charlotte has to be the fact they were never given a choice in how to live their lives, the tragedy all the more heartbreaking. Charlotte’s malaise feels forced comparatively, an American malcontent searching for what cannot be heard or found. One of the best American films this year, Marie Antoinette discovers a lost soul in the crumpled pages of history, one who’s plight fixates on sublime and articulate moments of sadness.