The trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a drool-worthy montage of Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette and her co-stars running about in stunning costumes, set to the totally unexpected eighties soundtrack of New Order’s “Age of Consent.” In this trailer, Coppola perfects the art of creating nostalgia for something vaguely familiar, yet unknown. It’s like a dream.
The film begins in much the same way. The beautiful Dunst, coupled with Milena Canonero’s elegant costume design and set in Versailles, creates an elating enchantment. But when the excitement of stylistic beauty fades, something of depth should take over, but it doesn’t. Coppola filmed Marie Antoinette beautifully enough to survive the first hour without anything really happening, but at 124 minutes it is little more than a long, elaborate music video to the lovingly familiar-sounding soundtrack of Coppola’s high school days.
Marie Antoinette was Coppola’s opportunity to interpret the personalities and depth that this unique queen of France and her fellow courtiers might have had, but she didn’t. For the first hour, Coppola focuses intently on poking fun at the ridiculous ritual formality that besieges royalty. A countless stream of ladies in waiting shuffle Antoinette’s gown through their ranks while the queen waits, naked and shivering, just to get dressed in the morning. Elaborate dinners are set in front of the king and queen, but they are not allowed to reach for anything on the table for themselves. Unfortunately, the attention Coppola showers on this royal insanity comes without any real wit or dialogue. One elaborate dinner has the famously funny former SNL cast member Molly Shannon in attendance, but while the dinner guests snicker at each other’s behavior, none of the interesting, star-studded cast add to the occasion.
In lieu of dialogue, music plays over incessant parties with champagne fountains and excessive gambling, but while the soundtrack is enchanting in itself, it does not replace the need for narrative in Coppola’s film.
Having spent so much time on perfecting the zeitgeist of her film, Coppola has forgotten to write a compelling story where one so desperately belongs. The life of Marie Antoinette has plenty to work with, but if one knew nothing of her life before seeing this film, her life might seem no different than that of any other indulgent queen. Without any acknowledgment of Antoinette’s eventual dedication to her children, to her husband, and even supposedly to the citizens of her France, there is little reason to like her for anything but her beauty and exotic lifestyle, which is not enough.
Only petite details express why her subjects revolted and why they focused so heavily on Antoinette, blaming her decadence for their starvation. Would it be too much for Coppola to step off of the grounds of Versailles to film something less than beautiful – real controversy, perhaps? In the film, leaving Versailles is the most upsetting possibility and eventuality for Antoinette, rather than that she eventually will be beheaded – a minor detail omitted in the film. Not that anyone needs to see a beheading, although one may want to, but the excessive repetition of parties and shoe shopping and footage of Antoinette running through the fields and halls of Versailles without any narrative to speak of – no one needs to see that either.
Naturally, Coppola would not want to see the heroine that so resembles her own life of privileged leisure and boredom beheaded, but where Coppola’s own character eventually produces art through film even if without narrative, her Marie Antoinette has few apparently redeeming qualities. Why should the audience care if she loses her head?