The same day I saw “Flags of Our Fathers” I saw “Marie Antoinette,” Sofia Coppola’s follow-up to “Lost in Translation.” The difference is night-and-day – from the flailing of Eastwood and Haggis to Coppola’s gentle confidence. Everything “Flags of Our Fathers” wants to say can be pieced together into an essay from its dialogue that can be read in place of watching the movie. Everything in “Marie Antoinette” is experiential; you only “get” this ethereal movie by watching it. Every shot in “Flags” looks digitally altered – glossy and fake. Everything in “Marie Antoinette” is shot on location.
(IMDb summary: “The retelling of France’s iconic but ill-fated queen, Marie Antoinette. From her betrothal and marriage to Louis XVI at 15 to her reign as queen at 19 and to the end of her reign as queen and ultimately the fall of Versailles.”)
Equal parts Terry Malick and “Russian Ark,” I started smiling early in “Marie Antoinette” and never stopped. There are a thousand essays to be written about it, but it is the act of watching it that is magical – its ethereal charm is hard to describe. Like “Russian Ark,” it revels in the beauty of Baroque Europe. Like “Russian Ark,” it shows great sympathy for its doomed aristocrats without saying anything they did was justifiable. Like “Russian Ark,” it posits that most people are good but simply not strong enough to stand up to the status quo. Marie (Kirsten Dunst) and her king (a magnificently goofy Jason Schwartzman) might behave differently if they knew what life was like outside their castle walls. But they are victims of an isolation begun long before they were born, people trapped and eventually ground down by history after lives squandered by meaningless regulation and luxury.
Like Terrence Malick, “Marie Antoinette” is at once as observational as a documentary, yet always, dreamily, obviously, the active vision of an artist. Coppola admittedly apes man-god Malick in the way she turns hand-held camerawork not into something jarring, gritty, or trendy, but into a floating half-memory, a random glimpse burned in the memory of a passing angel, while a thousand other glances are forgotten. There’s even a sequence of Marie at her summer cottage that makes you think Malick showed up one day to take over the directing.
Like Malick’s “The New World,” “Marie Antoinette” is the story of a teenage girl (many critics of the film seem to assume that teenage girls are inherently hateful). Coppola tucks anachronisms throughout the film, not to “update” the story but as a form of critical juxtaposition. The use of ‘80s pop songs come across not as a concession to popular tastes, but the exact opposite (the lukewarm critical and popular response are proof of that – people would much rather see queens accompanied by classical music like “The Queen”). Coppola is personalizing the film, connecting Marie’s own life to the places where Coppola was at that same age.
(The rejection of the ‘80s music is a stupefying devotion to a random cinematic convention, which states that 19th-century orchestral music is somehow “eternal” while pop music is “anachronistic.” The modern orchestra is only about 200 years old, which means that if you’re going to begrudge “Marie Antoinette” for 1980s music in the 1700s, you have to begrudge “Braveheart” and everyone’s beloved “Lord of the Rings” for music 600 years too early, “The Passion of the Christ” for music sixteen or seventeen centuries too early, and “The Ten Commandments” for music that’s a whopping four millennia too soon. “2001: A Space Odyssey” takes the cake, of course; “Thus Spake Zarathustra” appears in a sequence between one and three million years before it was written.)
In the end, “Marie Antoinette” succeeds in creating its own universe, and I was its visitor. It’s partly the real court of Versailles but also our world today, capturing a private universe with rules of its own that only ever really existing in the minds of its creators during its months of shooting.
Finished Saturday, December 16th, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Friday & Saturday Night
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