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Film review: Marie Antoinette

Robert W. Butler
The Kansas City Star

The danger in making a movie about bored, spoiled rich people leading directionless lives is that your film might seem boring and directionless, too.

Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" dodges that bullet - barely - in telling the story of the 14-year-old Viennese princess who married into French royalty, became the queen and later lost her head to the Revolution.

The facts of this film are based on Antonia Fraser's celebrated biography of Marie Antoinette. But the picture's tone is all Coppola's.

Shot in an explosion of pinks and pastels and propelled by a soundtrack of contemporary pop music, this is the story of a teenager who is torn from the life she's known and thrust into an arranged marriage.

The film begins with Marie (Kirsten Dunst) traveling from Vienna to Paris. Betrothed to the French dauphin in a treaty that will ensure peace for her native Austria, she's met at the border by delegates who strip her of her clothing, replacing it with French finery. Her beloved pooch is taken from her with the words: "You can have as many French dogs as you like."

Once at the court in Versailles, Marie is the subject of much sneering ("She looks like a child ...") and backbiting. Her new in-laws regard her as a sort of bumpkin, and her husband Louis (Jason Schwartzman) is an introvert who rarely makes eye contact and devotes himself to studying and collecting keys and locks - an ironic choice of hobbies given that it literally takes him years to consummate his marriage.

About the only member of the court to treat Marie kindly is the reigning king (Rip Torn), a randy old goat who flaunts his lower-class mistress Du Barry (Asia Argento). The first thing the monarch wants to know about Marie is "How is her bosom?"

Under the iron-willed guidance of Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), Marie learns the ridiculously intricate protocols under which she must live. Each morning she's greeted by a group of noblewomen who remove her nightgown and dress her, with the most intimate duties being performed by the woman with the most seniority. In one amusing scene Marie must stand naked and shivering while a succession of women with ascending pecking orders enter the room one by one, effectively delaying the moment when the dauphine can finally cover up.

Then there's breakfast. Every time Marie or her husband want a sip they must raise a hand. A bell will be rung and a servant will produce a glass, which must be handed back after the royal whistle has been wetted.

She's a bird in a gilded cage with a husband who won't touch her. Small wonder that Marie, like a teenage girl today, turns to rampant consumerism. She's not allowed to venture into Paris on shopping sprees, so the merchants come to her peddling ever more expensive dresses and absurdly top-heavy wigs. It's better than a day at the mall with daddy's American Express card.

Coppola's perspective is that of Marie - insulated, indulged and protected. The dauphine (later the queen) is viewed sympathetically ... or at least neutrally. Since the film's landscape is largely limited to the Palace of Versailles (where much of the picture was filmed on location) there's very little mention of the social unrest that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the monarchy. When it finally explodes, Marie is surprised.

In its third act "Marie Antoinette" gets bogged down in the queen's profligate spending and her affair with a hunky Swedish diplomat (former Calvin Klein model Jamie Dornan). But oddly enough, by film's end when the royal family is forced to evacuate the besieged Versailles (no guillotine in this retelling), this Marie has achieved something like genuine nobility. When the chips are down she takes her queenly role seriously.

Coppola puts less emphasis on plot than on creating a lifestyle on screen. There's a montage of creamy French pastries that practically invokes a hypoglycemic reaction and cinematographer Lance Acord (who last teamed with Coppola for the very different "Lost in Translation") captures this lost world with gorgeous images that rival Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon."

Indeed, on just about every technical level "Marie Antoinette" is flawless.

Dunst, a performer whose work has alternately piqued my interest and left me cold, does a fine job of inhabiting Marie. It's not at all actorish - which may be why we stay with the character. There's something so essentially human and familiar about this Marie that we like her in spite of what seems a shallow life and intellect.

___

MARIE ANTOINETTE

3 stars

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Judy Davis

Rated: PG-13 for brief sexuality.

Running time: 2:03

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