Imagine that you are a 14-year-old girl, part of a wealthy and powerful family, and you're sent to a foreign land, to marry a man you've never met in the name of peace and power. Everything is foreign to you: The codes, the rituals, the etiquette. And you're saddled with a single expectation: Produce a son who will be the heir to the throne; everything else you might do or might want is irrelevant. This is Marie Antoinette's story.
Unfortunately, it's not the story in Marie Antoinette -- or, rather, while those elements are in Sofia Coppola's new film about the historic French Queen, they're not its focus. Actually, the question of what, exactly, is Coppola's focus is a good one: Marie Antoinette takes a historical, epic story and doesn't really focus on the historic or epic parts of it, choosing instead to show us pretty images and lavish production values.
Played by Kirsten Dunst, Marie is a high-born Austrian whose engagement to France's Prince Louis (Jason Schwartzman) will bond both countries -- if, that is, the couple produce a male heir. King Louis XV (a bluff, hearty Rip Torn) is pleasant enough to Marie, but he's occupied with his mistress, the countess Du Barry (Asia Argento). And Marie's love life with her husband is a little lackluster -- yours would be too, if you had a hundred members of the French court tucking you in on your honeymoon night and a bishop on hand to give a blessing before you got to be alone.
When Marie Antoinette focuses on the mores and manners of the 18th century French court, it's interesting stuff; those moments, though, come few and far between. Much of Coppola's film is given over to sequences of dancing, trying on clothes or relaxing -- all of which may have been important elements of Marie Antoinette's life, but they hardly make for thrilling cinema.
It's hard to assess the performances in Marie Antionette -- Dunst's wigs are far better-developed than her character. There are a few standout turns form the other actors -- Rip Torn's booming-voiced King, Steve Coogan's helpful-but-hesitant Austrian Ambassador and Jason Schwartzman's easily befuddled but essentially decent Louis. Of course, every time we get a scene that looks like it's moving towards actually being about something, Coppola then shows us another montage of eating, fashion or a musical sequence. The musical sequences incorporate modern songs like Siousxie and the Banshees' Hong Kong Garden and Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy; it's a pretty artificial device, and it just strengthens the shallow, surface feel of the film overall.
Historians can't say for certain if Marie Antoinette, confronted by the idea that France's men and women were starving, actually said "Let them eat cake." After watching Marie Antoinette, I kept picturing Sofia Coppola offering up a big plate of icing -- not even cake -- for audiences: Pink, creamy costumes and music and sumptuous visuals with nothing under it to give the sugar-shock-esque, immediate buzz of the movie any real weight.