Marie Antoinette is a strangely beautiful Impressionist daydream, painted in the candy colors of teenage imagination. It offers only a bird's eye view of the history churning around its main character, so Marie Antoinette "buffs" -- if there are any -- be warned. Thematically, this film is no different from Sofia Coppola's last film, about cosmopolitan birds moving from one nest to another. Instead of America and Japan, the loci are now Austria and France, late 18th century. Louis, the doughboy dauphin of the Bourbon clan, needs a bride. The Austrian court presided over by Empress Marianne Faithfull -- what, no King Jagger? -- decides to gift him with one. Marie is mailed off via chariot, and after a long ride, her entourage is halted at the border between the two countries, where an elaborate archway has been constructed. The idea is for her to pass through it, like some kind of Franconizing carwash, after which her only problem in life will be "the problem of leisure -- what to do for pleasure" sung about by Gang of Four over the film's hot pink intro titles.
As a filmmaker, Coppola has a preoccupation with environments that are governed by strict social codes, which is probably natural enough for someone born into a crucible of celebrity. With The Virgin Suicides, it was the kill-or-be-killed (or kill yourself) world of high school. Lost in Translation was more about avoiding embarrassment when faced with an impenetrable social code, i.e. the Japanese. Anyone who's read the Antonia Fraser biography that Marie Antoinette takes off from will marvel at the sheer memory power that would have been necessary to keep all the layers of social etiquette straight. Since only a select few people were legally allowed to speak with the Queen, it fell to her to keep up with which bedchamber attendant or "princess of the blood" had earned the privilege of handing her a hanky to blow her nose. Marie is a character so buried under protocol and dedicated to pleasing her intimates that it's easy to believe she never said "Let them eat cake" about the destitute of Paris. "Let who eat cake?" would be more like it.
Coppola has a ball bringing this world to life, and uses tricks apparently picked up from Terrence Malick -- she has described Marie Antoinette's signature scene, a nature romp at the Queen's Le Petit Trianon hideaway, as an "homage" to Malick -- to elevate her visual narrative over the macro-event, the Revolution, which surrounds it. She dials down the dialogue and limits the number of one-on-one conversations, while relying on overly-simplistic exchanges to get information across. At one point, Jason Schwartzman, as the hapless Louis, is told he could stick it to the British by supporting America's war of independence. He agrees with a few words and a shrug. If this film cared about the same thing its characters cared about, this would be suicide. But Coppola employs anachronism and narrative travesty to her advantage. As in Malick's The Thin Red Line, where grunts waxed like beat poets in the middle of a killing field, here Kirsten Dunst is allowed to use the same accent she had in Bring it On, playing Marie as the high-haired spiritual godmother of today's teen jetsets.
The court life that surrounds her is even salted with modern Valley girl phraseology. "These are sooooo du Barry" Marie squeals at one point, equating a trashy pair of shoes with her rival at court, Madame du Barry. Played by Asia Argento, du Barry is an exotic crimson-wearing courtesan who owes her position to the fickle favor of her lover, King Louis XV (Rip Torn). When she's not shooting daggers at du Barry or playing footsie with a Romeo called Count Fersen, Marie, like any good celebutante, devotes some free time to pursuing acting. At one point we see her take to the stage for a cat-strangling performance of The Marriage of Figaro. We also see her flipping through a copy of Rousseau like an NYU undergrad lounging in front of the student union. For my money, though, the film's pleasure-and-leisure-seeking piece de resistance is a sunrise-in-the-garden sequence so beautifully shot that, stylistically, the rest of the film seems to work backwards from it. It sticks with you when the lights go up.
Marie Antoinette succeeds most of all because, like Coppola's previous films, it's confident and forward-moving, but not rushed or busy. The unpredictable shot selection forces you to refrain from trying to predict what's coming next, and the challenging narrative gaps and stylistic flights of fancy engage the imagination on a level that most genre paint-by-numbers efforts can't. It's a film that's meant to grab you on an almost purely visual level. Even if you don't know this going in, you'll probably guess it after minutes start to tick by with no dialogue. With the trio of films she's made so far, Coppola shows herself to be among the vanguard of young writer/directors -- one who may have it in her to make a masterpiece one day. She marches to her own slow, contemplative beat and tells exactly the story she wants to tell, from beginning to end. In the case of this film, the end comes at the appropriate point, which is when the party's over. Marie and her clique decide to abandon Club Versailles just as the nobodies are discovering it.