Sunday, October 22, 2006

This, Madame, is Versailles.

The films of Sofia Coppola are remarkable in their stillness. The depressed suburban languor of The Virgin Suicides and the unspoken loneliness felt by the two main characters in Lost in Translation are portrayed with silent contemplativeness, sidestepping plot contrivances in favor of dwelling on the poetry of a moment. The latter's famous opening shot, a closeup of Scarlett Johansson's backside as she lies idly in bed, summarizes Coppola's preoccupation with ennui; this shot is echoed in the first shot of Marie Antoinette, which introduces us to the titular character, clad in a ridiculously ornate blue dress and reclining, distracted, as she is attended to by a servant. The image has a painterly quality that evokes the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau (or, consequently, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which is a clear influence on Marie Antoinette); accompanied by Gang of Four's "Natural's Not in It," about "the problem of leisure," the image sets the tone for the film, which is preoccupied with the monotonous excess of the queen's short life. And while this results at points in a maddening sense of emotional claustrophobia, there's no denying that Coppola exerts impressive control over every painstakingly created image - brings 18th-century France to life with the immediacy of a John Hughes movie. The film is Barry Lyndon meets Pretty in Pink, and the result is more compelling than you might expect from such a marriage.

We are introduced to Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) as she is about to be married to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), future king of France; she's a typical teenage girl in most respects, giggling over a portrait of her husband-to-be and crying as the French authorities confiscate her puppy (assuring her that she can have as many French dogs as she likes). Coppola invites us to consider what it must have been like to assume such power and status at fifteen; indeed, Antoinette behaves like an Age of Enlightenment-period Paris Hilton, throwing lavish parties, spending wildly on shoes and remaining happily oblivious to the problems of the outside world.

Coppola doesn't try to defend this blithe spirit, exactly; instead, she encourages us to understand that Antoinette is a product of her circumstances. The film wisely never departs from the queen's sheltered point of view to depict the poverty and suffering elsewhere; like Antoinette, we are presented with a narrow reality defined by privelege, status and routine (demonstrated in the series of hilariously repetitious wake-up calls orchestrated by the Comtesse du Noailles [Judy Davis]). It's not only a world where the poor are as tangibly real as Babar the Elephant, it's one where all vitality has been replaced with a paralyzing sameness. The problem of leisure, indeed.

Coppola's camera captures weddings, funerals and official court receptions with a deliberateness worthy of Kubrick; the royal family and various partygoers move from one point to another like the spacecrafts in 2001. As the characters are designed to be static, the vitality of the film lies in its detailed, vibrant surfaces - the costumes by Milena Canonero (who did Barry Lyndon as well as The Shining) are not only stunningly crafted, they're also playfully expressionistic, lending us insight into the psychological states of the characters (who are truly defined by what they wear). Director of photography Lance Acord also does stunning work here, both in the candlelit interiors and the pastoral vacuum of Antoinette's getaway in the country. And the soundtrack, which alternates Rameau with The Cure, helps define this not as a period piece but as merely another point in the ongoing human story.

The film is not quite as successful as Coppola's previous efforts (which are admittedly a tough act to follow). There are a handful of moments, such as one where complaints about Antoinette are literally written across the screen, in which the director's intentions are spelled out in a way that her other films avoided. Luckily, the film is guided through any rough spots by Dunst, who does fine work here - she creates a complex version of Marie Antoinette that is at once unsentimental and touchingly believable. The entire film is just as perfectly cast; Schwartzman, whose young king has trouble consummating the royal marriage, is hilariously understated and also demonstrates unexpected gravity and range as the film draws to its inevitable conclusion. Rip Torn is a delight as the lusty Louis XV, and Judy Davis summons remarkable reservoirs of bitterness as the joyless Comtesse. But it's Asia Argento that really steals the film in her handful of scenes as Madame du Barry, the older king's devoted courtesan; she's the most fully alive character at the film (thus inviting the scorn of royal Heathers played by Shirley Henderson and Molly Shannon), and Argento embraces the role with such gusto that we miss her once she's left the film (though that may be the point).

The Virgin Suicides is one of the most remarkably self-assured feature debuts of all time, so it's a little disappointing to see Coppola's intentions occasionally falter here (a sex scene between Antoinette and Count Fersen [Jamie Dornan] is uncharacteristically routine). However, this is only relative to Coppola's other films; like Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic a few years back, it's a small step down from the director's other work but it's still more compelling and brilliantly crafted than almost anything else out right now. The final shot is a heartbreaker - Coppola succeeds in finding a singular visual metaphor that ties the film together and expresses worlds of unspoken sadness at the fleeting nature of the present. While Coppola's vision and the formal restrictions of a period piece are often at odds with one another, the resulting friction is spellbinding.

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