"Do you think it's too much?" asks Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), as she preens in an outrageously towering coiffure and opulent gown. These words could also be applied to Sofia Coppola's film itself, as with a candied sumptuousness she charts the journey of the young Austrian princess to the throne, as the last Queen of France, just before the bloody Revolution. It's a chick flick to end them all, but this is not to denigrate it in any way, as Coppola's directorial hand is astonishingly assured, working in inspired harmony with the wizardry of cinematographer Lance Acord and editor Sarah Flack and her sense of casting, with one exception, impeccable.
Coppola has infused her film with a New Wave rock 'n' roll flavor, with a music score heavy with '80s pop hits-Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" is used to especially good effect in a deliriously excessive shopping sequence. It's daring in the extreme and, while many will no doubt object to the anachronisms, there's no denying that Coppola has style to spare and has truly blown the dust off one's traditional biopic expectations. She fully captures, along with its swoon-inducing beauty, Versailles' gilded monotony and stultifying code of etiquette, which has the royals living even their most private moments in full view of the court.
Coppola adapted her screenplay from Antonia Fraser's fine biography and it's amazingly faithful to both fact and historically recorded dialogue. Judy Davis, as Marie's appointed duenna, Comtesse De Noailles, sinks her chops deliciously into the role like Edna May Oliver, and one can almost feel the actress' relish in such character work and relief at not having to carry the whole thing (as she had to with her Judy Garland biopic). Along with the rock spirit, the film is full of quieter grace notes, like the lovely dance Marie and Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) perform at their wedding, or a quiet shot of her retinue ascending a garden staircase to a meltingly lovely piano melody. Some will object to Coppola's almost total lack of political context-even one intercut shot of the starving, miserable French populace might have silenced them-but it's true that these royals lived in a completely enclosed cocoon, and this the director conveys with total accuracy.
Dunst, with that immediate audience empathy she's possessed since Interview with a Vampire, was a canny choice for Marie. Norma Shearer was 37 when she played the role in the glam 1938 MGM epic, and had to work overtime to convey the girlishness of the 14-year-old who arrived in Versailles, but Dunst effortlessly conveys the necessary vivacity and adorable precociousness. Her innate good taste as a performer stands her in good stead in scenes which could be humiliating (as when she must stand naked before all of the courtiers assembled to dress her) and her comic timing is winning when she declares, "This is ridiculous," or, later, "Let them eat cake...what a silly thing to say!" It was perhaps savvy of Coppola to end her film where she has, before the Revolution really begins, for Dunst still rather lacks the depth and weight to essay tragic womanhood.
Schwartzman, although physically too thin, is a touching, funny Louis XVI. Asia Argento, looking like a diabolical, brunette Uma Thurman, is a compellingly fierce Mme. Du Barry. Wonderful actors Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Rose Byrne and Molly Shannon bring distinctive flavor and fun as high-ranking nobles. Marianne Faithfull is majestically commanding as Empress Maria Theresa. Only Rip Torn, playing Louis XVI like a hillbilly, seems out of place.
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