January 05, 2007

Marie Antoinette

Sofia Coppola's career is built on portaits of the lost - lost people, lost times, lost places. It seems slightly beside the point to criticise her films for their aimlessness given that's exactly what they apparently document with such languid beauty. She's not a film-maker of statements or messages, by and large.

Which is why it's all the more surprising that Marie Antoinette starts as a portrait and ends as a pamphlet. Neither Virgin Suicides nor Lost in Translation tried quite as hard to steer the audience towards liking the central characters. Perhaps it's related to the source material - Virgin Suicides is no more historical than a video clip from the 80s is - or perhaps Coppola just fell in love with her protagonist. Either way, by the end of the film I felt as if I'd been taken to a special deep background briefing by a major star bent on setting the record straight.

And that gives the game away as far my own liking of the film goes. In short, I didn't. Many of the more technical aspects of the production I found quite appealing. It's nicely shot, it's well acted, there are some great costume and scenery moments, the soundtrack is anacronistic but usefully so, and there's a good balance between the characters. It's just that the film's main conceit is a stupid, shallow, historically ignorant, wilfully naive and politically unpalatable attempt to undertake special pleading on behalf of a figure who, frankly, has been cut all the slack she deserves over the past decade or so of historical rescue projects.

I'm not making any boasts about my own good nature when I say that had the film stuck to decorating the interior of the bubble I wouldn't have minded. Instead, rather the charting than the progress of an innocent child through a mostly insular world marked by a degree of personal tragedy and spiritual stiflement, the film starts to make claims about that child's growth towards wisdom and virtue. The problem is, you cannot have your misquoted bread substitute and the consumption thereof. Coppola gives us no Damascene moment at which L'Autrienne begins to realise exactly what the regime she enthusiastically participated in stands for. What we get instead is a kind of "why are people mean to me?" lament followed by some hopelessly de-contextualised trashing-of-Versailles sequences.

In other words, the film's fine up until the point at which it plays history, at which point it's a mess. You simply cannot attempt to do historical justice to Marie Antoinette without doing justice to the Revolution. Anything less is just PR. And, of course, the film cannot do justice to the revolution ("Madam! There's a mob at the gate!" is almost the first we know of it) without diminishing one's regard for Louis and Marie, which is at odds with the main premise. The harder project, which is to make Marie sympathetic at the same time as one documents the poverty, massively unjust legal system, vast waste of money, massively unjust taxation system and political repression which Louis' regime brought to France, is quite beyond the film.

Verdict: propaganda of the Evita species. Marie Antoinette should have been a furthering of an interesting career in character portraiture, and is instead a chase down a dead-end into reputation management.

posted on January 05, 2007 at 02:44 PM by darren.