Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Coppola's Marie Antoinette proves to be a feast for the senses

Here's a little something I've been meaning to write for some time now. I wanted to record my huge appreciation of Sofia Coppola's mesmerising Marie Antoinette.

I simply adored this film. Most unexpectedly.

I fervently wish I'd caught it at the cinema - such a lustrous, richly visual spectacle probably deserved nothing less. But I had to make do with a DVD and my widescreen television, fed through speakers to do some justice at least to the wonderful soundtrack.

I also loved Coppola's Lost in Translation and her earlier work, The Virgin Suicides. Which must mean, I guess, that Coppola's aesthetic style appeals to me. There is a stillness, a silence almost, at the heart of her films - even when your screen is a riot of colour and activity - which I find intensely moving. I also love her focus on strong female protagonists, and by strong, that doesn't mean kickass 'Xena' warrior princess-types - but complex, multi-layered women, whose feelings you can't help but engage with.

Scarlet Johansson was a splendid Coppola heroine in Lost in Translation, capturing that slightly aloof yet densely textured Coppolaesque 'essence' for want of a better phrase. I harboured doubts about Kirsten Dunst in the title role as Marie Antoinette. I'm not a great fan of Dunst, even though I enjoyed her in Coppola's The Virgin Suicides.

In fact, for much of Marie Antoinette, I even wondered if Dunst had bitten off more than she could chew. She seemed so ill at ease, so lost in it all, overwhelmed ... and then it struck me that she was absolutely perfect for the role, capturing Marie Antoinette's own lost, lonely sense of alienation, her necessity to seal herself away in a lush, consumerist dreamworld - a fantasia which was to cost her dearly.

Indeed, Marie Antoinette's excessive purchasing habits, her debauched lifestyle, were splendidly portrayed here. As was the opulent grandeur and sumptuous ritual of life at Versailles.

Other performances worth mentioning include Jason Schwartzman as Marie's sexually awkward husband Louis XVI, Steve Coogan as Marie's Austrian compatriot Ambassador Mercy (their final parting was particularly poignant), Shirley Henderson as Aunt Sophie and Rose Byrne as the scandalous, vivacious Duchesse de Polignac.

I had no qualms with the plethora of American accents, with the liberties taken with historical veracity, with the tumbling juxtaposition of historicities with brash 80s pop music. Indeed, the music was a highlight. I especially loved the usage of Siouxsie and the Banshee's Hong Kong Gardens, complete with violin intro, and I loved how the disconsolate melancholy of The Cure was used in the closing credits, capturing the sense of tragedy which pervades the closing stages of the film - indeed, there is a haunting melancholic undertow throughout. We all know how it ends, even though Coppola chooses to close the action with the King and Queen quitting Versailles for the very last time.

Music is such a powerful sensory weapon in the director's arsenal and Sofia Coppola proves she has an expert ear.

All in all, this was one of my favourite filmic experiences for some time. I am disappointed that Marie Antoinette didn't receive particularly positive critical feedback. Nor was it a box office sensation. Far from it. But this is an assured and moving piece of work from a hugely talented director.


hovacentauri said...

I loved it - beautiful - watched it twice and all the extra features on the dvd - glad to hear you are hooking the sound up through the stereo (ah, memories of a P&P-athon far, far away)

Two questions though: Coogan - now I love most of the work of my fellow Hovite, especially the Sinn Fein on helium skit from The Day Today, and of course Partridge, Saxondale, Pauline Calf etc. but I am curious about him popping up in this... it's a bit like there's a Coogan Matrix, where in one world (UK) he is playing characters whose pathos is cripplingly funny, and another (Hollywood) where he a usually younger, more arch figure with a more sophisticated ennui... it's not that I was suffering the odd Partridge flashback or anything as dramatic as that; but does his back-catalogue disadvantage his performance to a UK viewer?

Second - again one of the things I adore is a well crafted soundtrack of disparate periods, genres, moods... but in the end, do I love hearing blasts of Siouxsie/Bow Wow Wow/The Cure in this, Tears for Fears etc in Donnie Darko (the list goes on) just because I am a fortysomething and from the UK? I would be interested to hear if the selection of such time-capsule music creates that same frisson in the minds of viewers from outside the UK, and does it really build the mood within the context of the film, or induce an external unconnected nostalgia where I am synthesising sounds, memories, textures from my own life and filtering the film through those... so a query maybe on the marketing of a studied sense of 'cool' and how those associations work in different territories.

Gallivant said...

Great comment - thanks!

You raise some interesting points, particularly about our subjectivity as UK citizens watching these global movies. Yes, I do wonder if what you say about the music holds true, because so many of these bands weren't big Stateside. Having said that, I was surprised to see The Cure featured on the soundtrack for A Lot Like Love, which is a very US-centric romcom, and it didn't seem at all out of place. If anything 80s Britpop is being brought to a whole new audience - that has to be the case with TFF in Donnie Darko, that whole slow-mo sequence to Head over Heels has become iconic.

From a personal point of view, I'm definitely involved with the music as part of the films - not as vehicles for nostalgia. But I can see how different people might have different responses to music. I simply feel that any music evokes a certain mood, ambience, which can be utilised to capture/recreate that same mood or ambience in a film - and in some ways we replicate that in our own lives.

I'm thinking about your Steve Coogan point. I actually think he manages to carry off quite a multi-layered, almost sophisticated celeb-identity, but at the heart of his characters there is this self-conscious pathos which as you rightly say, can be 'cripplingly funny.' My favourite Coogan role is as 'himself' in Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Tristram Shandy - A Cock and Bull Story. Coogan plays a parodic version of himself. I also liked him in 24 Hour party People (also directed by Winterbottom).

However, in Marie Antoinette, Coogan seems to have a very different role to his usual ... or maybe I'm not sufficiently acquainted with his roles in Hollywood movies.

Claudie said...

Thank you for a very interesting and insightful review of Marie Antoinette. I myself, have been a little hesitant to watch the film, as, while a great fan of Sofia Coppola, I was not particularly excited by the casting of Kirsten Dunst. I am, however, very much persuaded to take a chance on it. I have to say though, I really enjoy all of your reviews, particularly your reviews of ITV's Jane Austen Season.

I was wondering if you have seen BBC's production of North and South and would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, my favorite movie of all time. Sophia captures the longing, the indulgence, belonging and isolation that makes up many a teenager and 20-something. I loved the parties, the shoes, the champagne and the vibrant color and extravagance that was Marie Antoinette.