based on Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
2006 • 123 minutes • Columbia Pictures
“You know what?” I said to Captain Cinema after we finished up Marie Antoinette (the first new-to-me film viewed at our apartment; the first was, of course, the 2011 The Three Musketeers). “This would make a great double bill with Plunkett and Macleane.”
I actually say that exact sentence a lot, because I’m obsessed with the difficult to find Plunkett and Macleane after seeing it when it briefly streamed on Netflix. (A DVD copy of it may be my Christmas gift to myself this year, providing I can find a used one online.) The last time I said that, I was conceiving of a double bill of A Knight’s Tale and Plunkett and Macleane, since they both belong to one of my favorite microgenres—the willfully and purposefully anachronistic period film. Such films tend to be and far between on the scale that I prefer, to the point that I would occasionally threaten to watch A Knight’s Tale twice in a row in college and actively sought out Virgin Territory. Anything on the level of A Knight’s Tale and Plunkett and Macleane seems to be few and far between.
But Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette fits perfectly alongside them. Technically, the only anachronistic element is a glimpse of a pair of blue Converse while Marie is trying on shoes, but the approach, largely that of a dreamy teen film of the nineties, is inherently so. Coppola has little to no interest in the historical record, a fact which initially deeply frustrated me—if you’re going to bring up the French Revolution, bring up the French Revolution. Rather, she’s much more interested in humanizing the oft-maligned Marie Antoinette by exploring her privileged, sensual, stifling world without a whiff of moral judgement. Is Marie’s later decadence excused by her game and increasingly desperate efforts to assimilate into the French court? Is her affair with Count Axel Fersen (as played by future Christian Grey Jamie Dornan) excused because of Louis XVI’s disinterest in her as a sexual being? Is her increasing seclusion the fault of a royal world that focuses on her as a walking womb instead of as a person?
Both Coppola and Marie herself provide no answers. Kristen Dunst’s dimly radiant Marie gets precious little dialogue. What dialogue there is is hushed, quiet, and cutting. In fact, I was struck by how devalued dialogue was in the sound mix. (I’ve become oddly attuned to sound mixing over the years, despite lacking a musical ear; blame it on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and apartment living.) There’s a constant, disapproving murmur surrounding Marie, which is countered by her own softly vocalized material demands. It’s almost a blessing when the always marvelous Rose Byrne arrives as the Duchesse de Polignac, whose decadence is exhibited by her constant and sharp chatter—while shopping, at dinner parties, at masquerade parties. (There is a scene where they sneak off to a masquerade ball, Marie’s luminous face masked only by a thin length of black lace.)
But besides the events that we know must happen (“So when is Mary Nighy’s head ending up on a pike?” I asked, ever-sensitive to my mother country’s history), the real plot is the shapelessness of Marie’s life, prevented from even dressing herself. A slightly sharper film emerges early on, as Marie watches the King’s mistress Du Barry fall from grace at the whim of the King as an example of what could happen to her should she not bear an heir, but once Du Barry exits, it’s all parties, playing poor at the Petit Trianon, and gently goading Louis XVI to stay up just a little longer to watch the sunrise. Having just read Champagne Supernovas, in which Coppola plays a quite minor but present role, there’s something slightly but far more kindly wound culture about this: watching a party unravel until the point of hangover, Marie lingering in rooms until dismissed by her handlers and, later, her husband, and, of course, the last shot of the ruined bedroom at Versailles, raided by unseen revolutionaries. Coppola eschews the big moments to focus on these smaller moments, often finding inventive ways to bypass them. Marie’s first pregnancy is contained in a single shot of Dunst radiantly lolling in the grass, for instance, and the death of her third child is elegantly condensed to the editing of a royal family portrait to remove the dead child.
Despite being a treasured installment in my favorite microgenre, I’m not sure if I could watch Marie Antoinette over and over, as I do A Knight’s Tale. It’s a hang-out film in the purest form, which is always hard to come back to. It’s more about the experience than the story—a perfectly valid focus, of course, but not usually where I land.
I rented this film from the public library.